Emily Dickinson (YGtCTO Words #57)

I taste a liquor never brewed

Poem written by Emily Dickinson

I don’t know. She seems happy enough to me.

Isn’t that the thing about Dickinson? She was a recluse who tied up her poems in tidy bundles with bows, squirreling them away in her trousseau? She was one part crone, one part crazy cat lady, and one hundred percent spinster. Some unknown party found her poems after her death and recognized her genius, revealing it to the world. Huzzah and hallelujah.

When you think of the great hermits of history: Dickinson and Buddha, right? One wrote some of the best poetry of the 19th century and the other founded a religion. Even Thoreau would wander into town and stir up trouble every now and then.

Of course, it’s this kind of horse hockey that makes young artists think they have to indulge in bad behavior and live like misanthropes. The path of the ascetic is the true path to enlightenment and true enlightenment is the only path to great art and true art is the only path to recognition, ideally posthumous.

Any brief overview of Dickinson’s life puts the lie to her being a shut-in. She may not have traveled the country like Mark Twain, but she was never going to stand on her rooftop and declare her genius to the world. She hung with family and friends. Dickinson wrote a lot of letters, which was what you did if you wanted to communicate with anyone. Then they wrote back. That was a social life for a vast swathe of humanity.

Emily Dickinson

She didn’t marry. Neither did Jane Austen. Clearly, they must have had to make the choice between art and marriage. Fortunately, we no longer judge women on that criteria.


let’s just take a moment and dry our eyes from all the laughter.

She didn’t publish. What sort of artist hides her light under a bushel? Perhaps we’re talking about the sort of artist who gets tired of editors messing with her verse. Sure, she might have loved self-publishing.

She seemingly cared little for posterity. The miracle here is that her verse was saved from the fire. At her request, her correspondence was burned after her death. Wouldn’t you just love to shake the hand of Lavinia Dickinson for not over-interpreting her sister’s wishes? On the other hand, consider whether or not you want someone to clear your browser history and sent email folder after you die? Essentially, this was the pre-digital equivalent.

To my ear and my heart, Dickinson is one of the two or three greatest poets in the English language- maybe the only one that I would name alongside Shakespeare. A world without Because I could not stop for Death and A Bird came down the Walk and I taste a liquor never brewed hardly seems the same. Whatever she thought of posterity, we’re fortunate that posterity took matters into its own hands.

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You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 130 more to go.

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