On the first day of my Emily Dickinson seminars I always ask students what they have heard about the poet. Usually, responses include that she wore white dresses all the time, that her poems are all about death, and that she never left her house.
What often follows that last comment is a gloomy assessment of Dickinson’s mental health, followed by nodding agreement around the table.
This negative attitude toward Dickinson’s choice to self-quarantine was common in her own time as well.
In 1868, when her friend and mentor, T.W. Higginson, suggested Dickinson visit him in Boston she firmly replied, “I do not cross my father’s ground to any house or town.”
Later, when Higginson visited her in Amherst, he asked the poet whether she sometimes missed having a social life. Dickinson replied, “I never thought of conceiving that I could ever have the slightest approach to such a want in all future time.”
Just in case Higginson was unsure whether she really meant it, Dickinson added, “I feel that I have not expressed myself strongly enough.”
On hearing his report on the visit, Higginson’s wife wondered, “Why do the insane so cling to you?”
At this point in the coronavirus quarantine, maybe we understand Mrs. Higginson’s perspective all too well. As we bemoan our lost freedoms, someone who would choose to spend most of her adult life inside her house defies our understanding.
Scholars, of course, offer lots of theories for the poet’s seclusion. For me, the most persuasive argument is this: If Dickinson had lived the conventionally social life of an upper-class 19th-century woman, she would not have had the time or energy to produce 1,789 poems.
Poet Adrienne Rich expresses it best in her essay, “Vesuvius at Home,” where she argues that Dickinson’s choice to self-isolate was entirely practical:
“I have a notion that genius knows itself; that Dickinson chose her seclusion, knowing she was exceptional and knowing what she needed.”
What, then, might we learn from Emily Dickinson, who — with sound mind and no government orders — chose of her own free will to live in self-quarantine?
Pay attention. Her routinized life at home allowed Dickinson to slow down and notice everything: the slant of light on winter afternoons, the funerals in her brain, the wild nights of her dreams, the way bees circle the flower before entering, her Newfoundland dog Carlo’s lumbering gait, the way a hummingbird’s wings create a wheel of color, a robin biting a worm in half, a snake dividing the grass.
While we don’t necessarily need to make art as Dickinson did, we may find our lives enriched — both during quarantine and beyond — by using our newly slowed-down pace to pay attention to details in the present moment.
Live with intention. Dickinson made the unusual decision to self-isolate in order to free herself to be a poet. While most of us would not willingly choose quarantine as a permanent lifestyle, the shake-up caused by this drastic change may lead us to reflect on our choices: What is most necessary and important to us and what is not? What do we really want to do with the time we are given on this earth?
Dickinson’s answer to those questions was that she needed to write, and to do that, time alone was essential. Her niece Mattie describes how, during a visit, her Aunt Emily gestured as if to lock her bedroom door with an invisible key, then said “It’s just a turn — and freedom, Matty.”
Instead of looking at “sheltering in place” as a euphemism for entrapment, what might happen if we practice it as the queen of quarantine did: as an opportunity to “dwell in Possibility — ,” to experience an entirely new form of freedom?
Erika Scheurer is an associate professor of English at the University of St. Thomas.