Study Guide

The Passion of Emily Dickinson

by Judith Farr

The Passion of Emily Dickinson Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Excluded from the title of this major study of Emily Dickinson is the suggested subtitle A Biography. In theory, a comprehensive biography of Dickinson would seem to be an impossible task. So secretive are many aspects of her life, so guarded are anecdotal reports of her contemporaries, so ambiguous or cryptic are the customary primary sources of investigation letters, journals, poetry that a biographer might despair of constructing a composite portrait of the artist because of the fragmentary nature of evidence. Nevertheless, Farr’s study comes as close to a true biography of Dickinson as is likely ever to be written. At least, her work is a persuasive account of the mind of the artist an intellectual biography of sorts.

How can the word passion be used in connection with the reclusive maid of Amherst? When Dickinson died at the age of fifty-five, Farr points out, most who knew her had not seen her face for a quarter of a century. Accounts by friends and family members provided a fragmentary portrait of the poet as eccentric, shy to the point of evading contact not only with strangers but also sometimes with intimates. Whether seen as a seraph or as a morbid spinster, the Dickinson of her contemporaries was certainly not a normal woman not even in terms of the isolated, inbred environment of Amherst. How then can one ascribe passion to such a narrow, self-involved, seemingly uneventful existence?

Farr’s masterful book allows the reader to perceive of Dickinson in an altogether unconventional way. Hers was indeed a passionate life one of intense (although mostly concealed) emotional depth. At the same time, in a spiritual sense, her passion resembled the ritualized tragic passion of the suffering Christ in transit to his heavenly mansion. As such, her life was as Farr reconstructs it from the time of her maturity as an artist, one of calculated, formal behavior that moved in a clearly marked direction.

To be sure, Farr argues that this book is not a biography, but she goes on to say that it attempts an inclusive vision of the poetry…read in the context of her time, environment, and personal circumstances. With this modest disclaimer, Farr tends to minimize the contribution that her study has made toward a satisfactory life of her elusive subject. In fact, however, Farr’s perceptive reading of the poetry, her broad-scale investigation of the poet’s intellectual and cultural world (especially that of mid-nineteenth century paintings that contributed to her aesthetic), and her convincing identification of the two mysterious figures in Dickinson’s writings, Master and Sue, combine to furnish a reader with all the biography of Dickinson one needs to know.

Sue (or My Sue, her precious Inn, where the Fair stopped ) is Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson, who had married Emily’s brother, Austin. In the long chapter The Narrative of Sue, Farr correctly treats Dickinson’s poems written to or alluding to Sue as a cycle. That is to say, the poems, taken together with evidence from Dickinson’s letters and diaries, form a narrative of the poet’s mostly adoring, often troubled, friendship and love for the gregarious, charming, sensitive, and intelligent but also materialistic, vain, and worldly woman whose portrait the poet creates. More than a frozen studio portrait, the character of Sue has a story cycle of events that revolve around her relationship with the poet and with others, generally members of the Dickinson household. During the course of the narrative, the poet’s attitude toward Sue changes. Although Dickinson never ceases to adore Sue as a woman of magnetic physical presence, she sees her friend eventually as shallow, self-absorbed, and petty. Because the narrative, similar to that of an Elizabethan sonnet cycle, has a plot of events and centers around the poet’s psychological and emotional reactions to these events, the poems need to be read in the order that Farr suggests. Only by understanding the life situations embedded in the poems can a reader fully appreciate Dickinson’s craft as an artist, her passion as a human being.

Farr’s identification of Sue as Susan Dickinson accords with the consensus judgment of commentators. What the writer brings to her research is not so much revelation as it is organization. By reading the cycle of poems in the order of the general chronological scheme that Farr constructs, Dickinson’s admirers can view poems not merely as isolated bolts of emotion but as interconnected works within a pattern or cycle of fairly continuous...

(The entire section is 1847 words.)