Closer Readings Commentary

A Valentine from Emily Dickinson: A Poet for all Seasons

Winter is good — his Hoar Delights

Italic flavor yield
To Intellects inebriate
With Summer, or the World —
Generic as a Quarry
And hearty — as a Rose —
Invited with Asperity
But welcome when he goes.

- Emily Dickinson (1316)

The cold temperatures getting you down? Delight in winter's embrace "hearty - as a Rose" with Emily Dickinson. Widely known and loved this American Poet for All Seasons continues to enchant each new generation with her unique style of verse. But are you aware of the other ways Emily expressed her creative gifts? Discover a new multifaceted Emily who was renown in her hometown of Amherst Massachusetts as an accomplished baker and gardener as well as a poet!

The Baker

"I am going to learn to make bread to-morrow. So you may imagine me with my sleeves rolled up, mixing flour, milk, salaratus, etc., with a great deal of grace. I advise you if you don’t know how to make the staff of life to learn with dispatch.” - Emily Dickinson to Abiah Root, September 25, 1845

For a new and different way to celebrate the life and work of Emily Dickinson try baking the poet's own signature Black Cake! The recipe is available through EDSITEment-reviewed Folger Shakespeare Library who serve it every year at their annual event in honor of her birthday. Poet’s House in New York City has exhibited Emily Dickinson manuscripts including her original recipe for Coconut Cake. The New York Times describes this facet of the “spectral titan of American poetry” as Sweet Genius. For more background on the poet’s culinary talents turn to Emily Dickinson and Cooking from the Emily Dickinson Museum.

The Gardener

"She knew the wood-lore of the region round about, and could name the haunts and habits of every wild and garden growth within her reach. Her eyes were wide open to nature's sights and her ears to nature's voice." - Mrs. Gordon Ford (daughter of Professor Fowler of Amherst College ) reflects on time spent with Emily as a girlhood friend

For a fresh approach to Emily's world, EDSITEment extends this bouquet of Flowers from Emily to share with students! Cold weather won't diminish these nature poems. On the contrary, they continue to bloom and grow even through the darkest days of winter…. Visit Dickinson Properties: The Landscape and take a virtual tour of the actual garden and the flowers Emily Dickinson cultivated. As you travel through this narrated clip, "Grounds of Memory," consider her use of flowers as metaphor. Think about how she translates her love and delight in the natural world into poetry that expresses her deep understanding of human nature and the meaning of life.

The Poet

“Reading things that are relevant to the facts of your life is of limited value. The facts are, after all, only the facts, and the yearning passionate part of you will not be met there. That is why reading ourselves as a fiction as well as fact is so liberating. The wider we read the freer we become. Emily Dickinson barely left her homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts, but when we read 'My life stood -- a loaded gun' we know we have met an imagination that will detonate life, not decorate it.” - Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Many students wonder why Dickinson did not title her poems. For insight into why Dickinson Didn't Title turn to EDSITEment-reviewed Modern American Poetry's series of essays on Emily Dickinson. There students can revel in audio recordings of British actress Julie Harris's moving portrayal of the poet as she delivers the poems and letters of Emily Dickinson. These readings, recorded in 1960, were originally presented on the stage by this actress in the one woman performance,The Belle of Amherst, which won her a Tony award for Best Actress in a Play.

Emily Dickinson's classic winter poem begins "There's a certain Slant of light, Winter Afternoons— (258). It is available from EDSITEment-reviewed Academy of American Poets. EDSITEment's Lesson 3: Emulating Emily Dickinson: Poetry Writing from the unit: Letters from Emily Dickinson: 'Will you be my preceptor?' offers a guided close reading of this poem and an analysis of its elements. The lesson contains an activity inviting students to "Emulate Emily" with their impressions of the poem. Extending the Lesson section offers a different take on the poet "Emily Dickinson" by contemporary poet Linda Pastan available from Titanic Operas, Folio 1 on the Dickinson Electronic Archives. Note how Pastan addresses and then challenges the myth of Dickinson. Ask students to consider that perception, then have them pen a poem that reflects their own perceptions of Dickinson and her influence on them.

A Valentine

Awake ye muses nine, sing me a strain divine,
Unwind the solemn twine, and tie my Valentine!
- Emily Dickinson (1850)

This time of year I like to return to this little verse of Dickinson that I used to include in my homemade valentines to schoolmates. In researching the origin of these lines, I learned Valentines Day in mid-19th-century America was celebrated not for just a single day, but for a whole week! During Valentines week, friends who were not involved romantically would engage in writing and sending notes to each other. In 1850, Emily penned this verse which opens a longer poem in a note to Elbridge Bowdoin, a law partner of her father. It is a poem in the genial comic tradition of many 19th-century valentines. In it Emily gives advice to Bowdoin, a confirmed bachelor, urging him to marry with tongue-in-cheek suggestions about who to wed. Bowdoin who had the foresight to save that letter for forty years would have understood it was written in that spirit. It reflects the whimsical side of Emily and serves as a reminder that even this most sublime poet was not above engaging in a little mischief!


Additional resources on Valentines Day as it was celebrated in the mid 19th-century:

Victorian Web: Love and Derision “By the Bushell”

Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington: