We have countless opportunities to nurture genius, but we must look in unexpected places. Genius often hides behind the shy eyes of a child, too reclusive to leave her familiar surroundings. In 1862 Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote a piece in the Atlantic Monthly entitled “Letter to a Young Contributor”. The response he received, written in a peculiar bird-scrawl began, “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?” It appeared to be unsigned until he discovered a small sub-envelope within that contained a card with the shyly penciled name “Emily Dickinson.” Enclosed also were four poems, and his curious and encouraging response led to a three-decade correspondence with Dickinson, she playing a coy “Scholar” and he bewildered and moved by the flights of her mind.
Emily Dickinson (born on this day, December 10th in 1830) could not have imagined the towering height of the fame which was to come.
I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us—don’t tell!
They ’d banish us, you know.
How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!
As Terry Glaspey explains in 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know
At nineteen, Emily Dickinson was a cheerful and optimistic young woman and an active participant in the polite, sometimes uptight, New England community in which she had been raised. She attended local dinners and dances, and traveled with her congressman father on trips to Philadelphia, Washington, Boston, and New York. But by the time of her death, this once rather conventional young lady had become an almost mythical recluse who dressed almost exclusively in white, rarely left her second-story bedroom, and spent much of her time at her desk, writing poetry and letters to friends.
What had caused the dramatic shift in her life? Some suggest that a devastating disappointment in a relationship drove her inward. Others postulate that she may have suffered from a psychological malady such as agoraphobia. Or perhaps she just discovered that the place where she really found joy was in the confines of her own creative mind and soul. We’ll likely never know for certain, for though her poems and letters might provide hints, they generally obscure as much as they reveal about this wonderful but puzzling poet.
Dickinson embraced her seclusion, finding in her solitude a place where she could be spiritually transported. How she saw the world and what she experienced in her inner life provided the subject matter for her poems. She was extremely prolific during her short life, penning over 1,700 poems and writing enough letters to fill three stout volumes. These letters and poems reveal the woman she had become: a careful observer of the world and of her own self, someone cynical about easy answers to life’s hard questions, a wrestler with God, and a poet who found her own entirely unique way of communicating about life and death, time and eternity, faith and doubt, the simple beauties she saw in nature, and the exquisite sufferings she felt within her innermost self.
Does seclusion enhance spiritual focus?
Dig Deeper: Emily Dickinson
(1830–1886). American poet. A shy recluse from Amherst, Massachusetts, Dickinson spent most of her life in her home and garden, yet the lines that she penned and stored there have made her one of America’s foremost poets. Dickinson published only seven poems during her lifetime, despite the fact that she carried on a twenty-two-year correspondence with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a poetry critic and her acknowledged “preceptor.” Nevertheless, after her death, over 1,500 of her poems were found, and the true poetic genius of Emily Dickinson came to light. Her poetry is characterized by a remarkable economy of style, an intensified use of language, an absence of titles and an experimental use of punctuation. In terms of thematic material, her intense interest in death, immortality and nature led to a rather pronounced treatment of religious themes. For example, she often pictured death as a lover or friend in order to eliminate its horror.
Emily Dickinson’s interest in religion was magnified by her admiration of the Reverend Charles Wadsworth. Their relationship is obscured and uncertain, but she probably loved him and he was at least a spiritual example to her. Nevertheless, despite her connection to Wadsworth and her concentration on religious themes in her poetry, Emily Dickinson spurned traditional Calvinism and the institutional church, and she resisted pressure to join the church. She clearly sets forth her attitude toward organized religion in lines that exalt the experience of nature over church observance. Thus, the eccentric recluse from Amherst, with her cryptic, lyrical lines, has become one of America’s most famous poets—one who wrote about religious matters yet rejected traditional religious institutions.
MODESTY & Depth of Character
Goodness should not be invisible. It should not be colorless. On the other hand, it should not dazzle or overpower. It should compel, not impel; attract, not attack.
Modesty is the virtue that presents goodness in its proper color: one of elegance rather than affluence, of economy rather than extravagance, naturalness rather than ostentation. “What a power has white simplicity,” as Keats has aptly written. Modesty is the virtue that allows one to focus on what is good without being distracted by irrelevant superficialities.
The modest person is content with living well and performing good deeds without fanfare. For him, life is essential, rewards are superfluous. He believes that nature opens to a wider world, whereas ornamentation stifles. He is always averse to gilding the lily. He is confident without being demure, unpretentious without being self-defeating. He lets his actions and words speak for themselves.
Modesty seems out of step with the modern world. As a rule, people are most eager to impress others by recourse to no end of gimmicks. Those who work in the advertising or cosmetic industries regard modesty as a self-imposed handicap. If “nice guys finish last,” people of modesty do not even enter the race. Hollywood, or “Tinsel Town,” as it is appropriately called, is the glamour capital of the world, its chief export being the very antithesis of modesty. It champions style over substance, image over essence.
Despite the arrogance and the artificiality of the modern world, modesty retains an unmatched power. It remains a diamond in the midst of zircons. “In the modesty of fearful duty,” wrote Shakespeare, “I read as much as from the rattling tongue of saucy and audacious eloquence” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream). When modesty speaks, its unvarnished eloquence presents that which is as true, dependable, and genuine. Modesty is concerned with honesty, not deceit.
Emily Dickinson exemplifies the paradox that modesty, which is unconcerned about stature and reputation, can actually enlarge them. When she was thirty-two, she sent four of her poems to The Atlantic Monthly. The magazine’s rejection of them led her to believe that the public was not interested in her poetry. This belief remained with her throughout the rest of her life, and she never submitted any more of her works for publication. Although she wrote some 1,775 poems over the course of her life, only seven of them were published—all anonymously, and most of them surreptitiously by friends who wanted to see them in print.
“Fame is a fickle thing,” she wrote, “men eat of it and die.” As she stated in a letter to a literary critic whom she admired, “My Barefoot Rank is better.” Her own modest world was broad enough to fill her heart: “A modest lot … is plenty! Is enough.” It was her destiny: “I meant to have modest needs, such as content and heaven.” She did not require much to be transported from one realm to another. A book was sufficient—“How frugal is the chariot that bears the human soul.”
A contemporary American theologian of hers, by the name of Nathaniel Emmons, may have written the perfect summation of Dickinson’s triumphant modesty when he said: “Make no display of your talents or attainments; for everyone will clearly see, admire, and acknowledge them, so long as you cover them with the beautiful veil of modesty.”
One such admirer was the head of a Catholic religious order who confessed: “I bless God for Emily—some of her writings have had a more profound influence on my life than anything else that anyone has ever written.” The general consensus recognizes her as one of America’s greatest poets, and the greatest of America’s women poets. Moreover, she touched people who ordinarily do not care much for poetry. As one critic put it, she is supremely the poet of those who “never read poetry.”
One of the most basic and vexing problems in moral education is how to make virtue more attractive than vice. In this regard, modesty plays a key role. Modesty is inherently attractive because it invites one to examine the quiet depth of what is there. Display is not as attractive as it is conspicuous. But what is merely conspicuous is often shallow. It is only natural for people to lift up the modest and be turned away by the proud.
The modesty of the following lines that encapsulate Emily Dickinson’s life provide a good illustration of the singularly attractive power of modesty:
This is my letter to the World,
That never wrote to Me—
The simple News that Nature told—
With tender Majesty.
Her Message is committed
To Hands I cannot see—
For love of Her—sweet countrymen—
Judge tenderly—of Me.
Sources & Resources
Donald DeMarco, The Many Faces of Virtue (Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2000), 99–102.
T. Johnson, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (1960, 1976);
J. Leyda, The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson, 2 vols. (1960);
J. Pickard, Emily Dickinson, An Introduction and Interpretation (1967).
Daniel G. Reid, Robert Dean Linder, Bruce L. Shelley, et al., Dictionary of Christianity in America (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990).
Carpini, John Delli. Emily Dickinson: Poetry as Prayer. Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2002.
Dickinson, Emily. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. New York: Little, Brown, 1976.
Doyle, Connie. “Experiment in Green: Emily Dickinson’s Search for Faith.” The Dominican Friars of the Province of St. Albert the Great. http://opcentral.org/resources/2015/01/21/connie-doyle-experiment-in-green-emily-dickinsons-search-for-faith/.
LeMay, Kristin. I Told My Soul to Sing: Finding God with Emily Dickinson. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2013.
Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).