GeminiMAGAZINE
_____________
EMILY DICKINSON’S
WILD NIGHTS
by
Fred D. White
"I’ve tasted Rum before."
—Emily Dickinson, in a letter to T. W. Higginson

1

Thomas Wentworth Higginson was worried. Nervously stroking his
mutton-chop whiskers, he read the unsettling poem once again. Bad
enough his “crack’d poetess” was about to be presented to the
world, spasmodic gait and all, even after he and his co-editor, Mabel
Loomis Todd, had regularized the grammar, meter, and punctuation,
even the diction, in many of the verses they had selected for the
inaugural volume, scheduled for the presses of Roberts Brothers in
November 1890, just a few months away. But to include
this poem
could lead to public disgrace. It was not as disgraceful, surely, as the
shapeless obscene drivel the heathen Walt Whitman had been
polluting bookstalls with these past thirty years, but nonetheless an
affront to the God-fearing.

No one believed that the book would sell more than a handful of
copies. Publisher Thomas Niles had written to Higginson, “They
[Dickinson’s poems] are as remarkable for defects as for beauties”;
and, according to Mabel Todd’s daughter, Millicent Todd Bingham, in
Ancestors’ Brocades, Niles insisted that Lavinia (Emily Dickinson’s
younger sister) “pay for the plates” to cover the financial loss. To
prevent that from happening, Higginson prepared an article for the
September 25 issue of The Christian Union that would gently
introduce the volume of strange new poetry to the masses, with 19
of the 115 poems slated to appear in the volume.

But as he held the page proof of what would become the 116th
poem, pending his approval, Higginson read yet again the breathless
lines of the woman with whom he’d been corresponding for nearly
twenty-five years in his capacity as literary advisor for The Atlantic
Monthly—lines that stirred his emotions in more ways than he cared
to admit:

        Wild Nights–Wild Nights!

        Were I with thee

        Wild nights should be

        Our luxury!

        . . .

—and the concluding stanza:

        Rowing in Eden–

        Ah, the Sea!

        Might I but moor–Tonight–

        In Thee![1]

Higginson cleared his throat, licked his dry lips and made his decision.
No, this poem must not appear in the first volume. An addled
reviewer might make enough of a fuss over the poem to give a
distorted opinion of all the others. Should the book do well enough to
warrant a second series, maybe he would recommend its inclusion
there.

To everyone’s amazement the first printing of Poems, First Series,
sold out rapidly, as did subsequent printings. Who could have
anticipated such an enthusiastic response?

Higginson liked to think that his Sept.1890 Christian Union article,
published two months before the book, had a lot to do with it—not
to mention Mabel Todd’s charismatic readings of the deceased
recluse’s poems across the commonwealth. He and Mabel immediately
began preparing the second volume. Once again, “Wild Nights” arose
like a specter to scramble his insides. In April 1891 he wrote to Todd:

Dear Friend,

One poem only I dread a little to print—that wonderful “Wild Nights,”
lest the malignant read into it more than that virgin recluse ever
dreamed of putting there. Has Miss Lavinia any shrinking about it?
You will understand & pardon my solicitude. Yet what a loss to omit
it! Indeed, it is not to be omitted.

                                                    Ever cordially,

                                                    T. W. Higginson

How presumptuous of him to think that a celibate female poet would
be incapable of capturing authentic sexual longing through her verse,
or that to detect sexual longing in such a deliciously ambivalent
expression as “wild nights” would constitute a “malignant” reading.
Just to be safe, he and Todd tucked the poem as far away from
censorious eyes as they could—in the latter third of the volume, on
page 97.

“Wild Nights” teases, entices. The speaker appears to be celebrating
her desire for a tempestuous sexual union that would match the wild
abandon of a sea storm; yet, at the same time she seeks protection
from that storm. Cynthia Griffin Wolff suggests in her biography
(Emily Dickinson) that Dickinson’s use of the word “luxury” is
cunningly deliberate. Noah Webster, in the 1844 edition of his
dictionary (the edition Dickinson owned), defined “luxury” as
“voluptuousness in the gratification of appetite . . . lust.”[2] Also—
and perhaps this is due to my own perspective as a male reader—
doesn’t that jerky meter suggest the thrusting of two lovers engaged
in unbridled sexual intercourse? Paula Bennett (Emily Dickinson:
Woman Poet) regards “Wild Nights,” along with “Come slowly–Eden!”
and “Did the Harebell loose her girdle / to the lover Bee” as
celebrations of a woman’s “sheer physical enjoyment of female
sexuality.”[3] Similarly, Helen Vendler (Dickinson: Selected Poems and
Commentaries) notes how eagerly the speaker is prepared to discard
“those instruments of precision—Compass and Chart—[which] have
no portion in wildness . . . relieved that she will no longer have to
monitor her own navigation.”[4]

Ironically, this apparent sexual drama is staged in the
mind of the
speaker—not necessarily the poet, we must remember—but a
“supposed person” (her phrase in an early letter to Higginson), one
who only
imagines being with her lover, staking out in the name of
Eros a new Eden. In this drama the tempest-tossed sea/bed, and the
sexual ecstasy that would be performed upon it, would constitute a
return to, not expulsion from, Paradise—provided that ecstasy be
moored in the beloved.  

For all this audacious eroticism, there is no fulfillment. Actually,
though, from Emily Dickinson’s perspective, fulfillment is perversely
experienced through the lover’s
absence, raising the desire for union
to a fever pitch. The poem thus revels in ungratified sex (or, more
precisely, revels in a sexual encounter which gratifies only if staged in
the creative imagination):
Were I with thee . . . Might I but moor—
Tonight— / In thee. The poem’s erotic power is generated by longing
alone; in other words, longing provides its own gratification—superior
to “actual” physical longing because it does not end when
consummated. This is not to say that conventional sexual fulfillment
does not occur in Dickinson’s New Eden; but when sexual fulfillment
does occur, dissolution occurs, as in the case of the fainting bee in
“Come slowly, Eden,” who, “Reaching late his flower, / Round her
chamber hums— / Counts his nectars— / Enters— and is lost in
Balms.” “Wild Nights” is not so much about sex as it is about sex-as-
death, a theme with roots in ancient religious thought—a premise
George Bataille examines in his 1962 study of eroticism and the
taboo, Death and Sensuality.[5] When it occurs, selfhood is
breached—a state tantamount to dying (and, for Emily Dickinson, the
transition from earth to heaven). In an 1869 letter Dickinson
admonishes her cousin Perez Cowan for speaking of death “with so
much expectation”: “I know there is no pang like that for those we
love . . . but Dying is a wild Night and a new Road.”          

2

I first encountered “Wild Nights” in high school, during a memorable
semester with my sophomore English teacher, who likened Emily
Dickinson to a sorceress, reaching beyond the grave to bewitch those
who took the time to let her poems soak into their pores. It took me
a while to become accustomed to her mind-stretching metaphors and
hyper-compressed syntax, but the alchemy took hold. I read them to
my girlfriend one weekend when I tagged along with her and her
parents to Griffith Park for a picnic. Maybe I too could be the agency
of erotic bewitchment, I thought wickedly, if I shared “Wild Nights”
and a few other choice Emily Dickinson poems with her. So after lunch
we hiked up one of the bridle trails leading to the observatory and
wound up nestled inside a thicket where I pulled out my crumpled
sheets of notebook paper and read the poems in a tremulous voice,
watching her green eyes grow wide with that strange combination of
enchantment and bemusement that students often exhibit when
encountering Emily Dickinson for the first time.

3

I awoke at sunrise and sat out on the veranda of the Amber House
Bed & Breakfast on Main Street, two blocks east of the Dickinson
Homestead. I inhaled the crisp summer morning air, and read several
Dickinson poems from the miniature volume I always carried with me.
Soon, church bells from First Congregational proclaimed the faith of
ages.  

Erin, one of the guests at breakfast, a young mezzo-soprano from
Brooklyn, was planning to tour the historic Dickinson home. She had
become enchanted with Emily Dickinson’s poetry after singing several
of the poems set to music by Aaron Copland on a recent recital. I
explained my own visit to Amherst, mainly to study some of her so-
called “worksheet” drafts (the later, pencil-draft poems, often riddled
with variant words and phrases), archived in the Amherst College
library, in preparation for a paper I was to present at an academic
conference. The singer’s large, dark eyes widened with fascination.
They reminded me of the poet’s eyes in that singular 1848
Daguerreotype. “Be careful,” I cautioned myself, “that you do not
gaze too intently into those eyes; you must not transform ordinary
mortals, or even extraordinary ones, into Emily Dickinson stand-ins.”

“How exciting, it must be for you,” Erin exclaimed, “to hold those
actual manuscripts of hers in your hands!”

“Yes indeed,” I replied, biting into my cheese omelet, not bothering to
explain that with one or two exceptions, I’d been permitted to
examine only photocopies—and even the exceptions were protected
by plastic sleeves. “It’s close to being a spiritual experience.”

Later that afternoon, as I strolled across the Amherst College
campus, my buoyant mood suddenly became overshadowed by
loneliness. But a few moments later,
She appeared out of nowhere.
No, wait—it was only Erin, the mezzo from the inn. She had draped a
floral scarf over her head. She extended her hand, but instead of
shaking it, I brought it, soft and small and warm as a wren, to my
lips. She giggled, retracting it reflexively.

“For a fleeting moment, Erin, I imagined you to be Emily Dickinson in
the flesh—you kind of resemble her.”

Erin giggled some more and patted her hair. “You think?”

“I feel like strolling across this lovely campus. Would you care to join
me?”

She checked her watch. “Um . . . okay, sure.”

We passed the haughty, copper-green statue of Henry Ward
Beecher; we passed the chapel, we passed the Amherst College
Library; we paused before the World War Two memorial overlooking
the Holyoke Mountains.

Erin broke the silence. “Do you suppose she ever actually fell in love?”

It was not an easy question to answer. Emily Dickinson fell in love
with the world, with nature, with life itself. She fell in love with her
dearest friends—especially her sister-in-law Sue. But I knew that Erin
was referring to romantic, passionate love—which, for a person with
such heightened emotions as Emily Dickinson, may not have been all
that different from loving a dear friend. “I would say she fell in love at
least twice, in the way we customarily think of falling in love. The first
time was with the intended recipient of those enigmatic, anguished
‘Master’ letters—probably Samuel Bowles or the Reverend Charles
Wadsworth. The second time, near the end of her life—was with
Judge Otis Lord. Lord had actually died of a stroke, not long after
they’d apparently confessed their love for each other.” I cleared my
throat. “There were also many, um, infatuations.”

“Poor Emily,” Erin sighed.

“No, no; not ‘poor Emily’: I can’t imagine her marrying Judge Lord, or
anyone else. For her, being in love demanded the lover’s
absence, not
his presence—or, more precisely, his presence-in-absence.” I took a
deep breath and recited “Wild Nights.”

“Oh, my goodness,” Erin said, half to herself, when I finished.

The sky above the western hills was growing pink and hazy. “In other
words,” Erin finally said, with a glint in her large eyes, “she had to
conjure her lovers up in
words, in letters, in poems—to them as well
as from them, in order for them to be real to her.”

I nodded. “Writing—the soul and mind transformed into words on
paper—did not merely ‘bridge’ the gulf between lover and beloved,
they
defined it, shaped it, thereby igniting the deepest passions love
could produce—attainment in non-attainment.”

Erin smiled faintly. “Yeah, I know the feeling . . .”

“This may be a stretch, but it seemed to me that in one of her poems
Higginson’s virgin recluse actually staged her narrator’s own
deflowering, sardonically pushing just the right
floral metaphors to
their ultimate limit:

        I tend my flowers for thee—

        Bright Absentee!

        My Fuchsia’s Coral Seams

        Rip—while the Sower—dreams—

                   
        Geraniums—tint—and spot—

        Low Daisies—dot—

        My Cactus—splits her Beard

        To show her throat— . . .       

Number 339.”

“Good grief!” the singer gasped, bringing a hand to her cheek.

“There are several others. In an earlier poem, the seduction is
distanced even further by casting it as a question:

        Did the Harebell loose her girdle

        To the lover Bee,

        Would the Bee the Harebell
hallow

        Much as formerly?                                            

Number 213. It’s a little like Schrödinger’s cat, right? The harebell is
both ravished and not ravished; the mere allusion to the act as an
uncertainty makes it reality enough.”

Erin spread her arms and exclaimed, “‘Possibility—a fairer house than
prose’!”

*

Erin and I had been sitting together for nearly an hour on a bench,
watching daylight fade. Now she sprang to her feet and declaimed in
her gorgeous mezzo voice, “I’d rather recollect a setting / Than own a
rising sun.”

I felt a sudden urge to embrace her. She sensed this, and her eyes
narrowed mirthfully. I retrieved my miniature volume of Dickinson’s
poems and found one (#656) that felt especially appropriate for the
moment. . . .

        The name—of it—is “Autumn”—

        The hue—of it—is Blood—

“She uses so many anatomical metaphors,” Erin said, frowning.
“Blood, brains, lungs, veins, and such—which she uses to capture
moments not of agony but of ecstasy.”

I acknowledged the perceptiveness of her comment; Camille Paglia in
her provocative study, Sexual Personae, comments on that very
characteristic.[6] I returned to the poem:

        An Artery—upon the Hill—

        A Vein—along the Road—

        Great Globules—in the Alleys—

        And Oh, the Shower of Stain—  

Erin clasped my arm. “My favorite lines are in the last stanza.” She
shut her eyes, cleared her throat, and recited,

        It sprinkles Bonnets—far below—

        It gathers ruddy Pools—

        Then—eddies like a Rose—away—

        Upon Vermilion Wheels—

She opened her eyes, which now seemed . . . haunted—as if Emily
Dickinson had taken possession of her soul.

“Her dashes are especially exuberant in that poem.” I showed her the
printed text, difficult to see in the fading light, and Erin’s mouth fell
open. “But,” I continued, “I don’t think that that’s how she wrote it
down. The printed dashes are too uniform, too straight. Her dashes—
the way she actually wrote them—are of different sizes; some arch
upward, others downward. Elocutionary markings, for recitation! They
are never gratuitous.”

All the while, I was wondering if the dashes in this poem indicated a
more . . . wanton impulse. Almost in spite of myself I envisioned Emily
Dickinson as a dominatrix in a tight leather bodice, Camille Paglia’s
Madame de Sade, wielding dash-barbed phrases like a cat-o-nine tails
against her lover’s backside, watching the flesh become rapidly . . .
autumnal. Just as “A
wounded deer—leaps highest—”; just as “I like a
look of Agony / Because I know it’s true”—sexual pleasure could not
be dissociated from pain, loss, or absence.

Erin stared at me, her moon eyes nearly bulging, as if suddenly able
to read my thoughts.

Alas, my fetishistic fantasy had disrupted the sweet serenity of our
communion, for she suddenly glanced at her watch, made some
excuse about being late for a dinner engagement, and dashed off.

5

Emily Dickinson’s erotic sensibility is subtle and pregnant with
paradox. I sometimes wonder if her entire body of work is essentially
a sexualized theology, an anguished effort to re-ignite our spiritual
lives after they have been so thoroughly de-paganized by Christian
orthodoxy; and what better way to re-sexualize ourselves than with
language?

Her first order of business: eroticize God and Heaven:

        I went to Heaven—

        ‘Twas a small Town—

        Lit—with a Ruby—

        Lathed—with Down—    

        (#374)

Heaven as clitoris? Paula Bennett thinks so.[7] Heaven as the female
body awakened by sexual stimulation—and self-stimulation, no less?
How blasphemous can one get! Salvation is not only to be achieved
erotically, through the flesh; it is to be achieved
auto-erotically. That
which the Calvinist would condemn as an obstacle to Heaven here
becomes Heaven itself.

Many of Emily Dickinson’s readers tend to see these erotic poems as
obliquely autobiographical, a kind of shorthand allusion to her private
sexual longings instead of dramatically rendered moments of
universal being. My response is that her “actual” experience, whatever
it was, or wasn’t, is immaterial. Like Dante, Shakespeare, and Keats,
she knew how to wrap the universal in the flesh of the fictive
particular.

For Dickinson, soul and heaven, if they are to hold meaning, must be
made flesh. The mind that contemplates bliss does so by
encapsulating it with mortal flesh. Indeed, the mind itself must
project itself, not so much as Thought but as Brain—which is not
only “wider than the Sky” (#632) but a lot sexier, albeit a lot more
mortal.

Why is it that in her most erotic poems we seem to find ourselves
nearest the burial ground? Take one more step toward Fulfillment,
toward consummation, orgasm, and one will become one of her
“finished” creatures:
Consummatum est. Departure is more
sensuous than arrival; denial and deprivation pack more deliciously
ambivalent erotic-spiritual force than possession and gratification:

        To be forgot by thee

        Surpasses Memory

        Of other minds

        The Heart cannot forget

        Unless it contemplate

        What it declines . . .        

        (#1560)

To
contemplate what is declined, to long to be moored in the arms of
one’s lover raises sexual love to a higher reality—but we are not in
Plato’s universe of essences and pure ideas—oh no: the physical truly
matters to Dickinson, but it is the physical that must remain out of
reach, palpably so. In fact, even Heaven is physical, another name for
God, who is not to be distinguished from guardian or lover—but once
again is tantalizingly just beyond her reach. Heaven, like the desired
lover, is most meaningful and real when its—
his—absence is a
Presence. In another poem (#1055), Heaven appears as a lover
waiting with high expectations for his beloved Soul:

        The Soul should always stand ajar

        That if the Heaven inquire

        He will not be obliged to wait

        Or shy of troubling Her

        Depart, before the Host have slid

        The bolt unto the Door—

        To search for the accomplished Guest,

        Her visitor, no more—

For Dickinson, as for me, departure is more heartrending than arrival.
Denial and deprivation pack a more deliciously ambivalent
erotic/spiritual force than possession and consummation. The longer
and more intense the absence, the greater the erotic force that builds
like a volcano’s until her “Thigh of Granite” erupts; until the “Solemn—
Torrid—Symbol” of her volcanic sexuality—“The lips that never lie—
/ Whose hissing Corals part—and shut—” rain molten lava of
recognition upon an astonished public; until there is
poetry “—And
Cities ooze away—”

6

Night had descended upon Amherst as I made my way back toward
the Amber House B & B. When I passed by the Poet’s homestead—
that stately Federalist brick mansion that Emily Dickinson’s
grandfather built in 1813—I gazed up at the second-floor west
window . . .
Her bedroom window . . . , and I willed her to appear,
just once, to bid me good night.

I waited, patiently, in the darkness.

At long last the curtains, like arms swathed in gossamer—stirred—
and spread apart.    


Fred D. White’s essays have appeared in The Chronicle of Higher
Education, College Literature, Pleiades, and Southwest Review,
among others. He is the author of Approaching Emily Dickinson:
Critical Currents and Crosscurrents since 1960 (Camden House,
2008), and several books for writers—most recently, Where Do You
Get Your Ideas? A Writer's Guide to Transforming Notions into
Narratives (Writer's Digest Books, 2012), and The Writer’s Idea
Thesaurus (Writer’s Digest Books, 2014). A Professor Emeritus of
English (Santa Clara University), he lives near Sacramento, CA.


NOTES

1. Poem 249 in The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas
H. Johnson (New York: Little, Brown, 1960).

2. This definition is cited by Wolff, 384.

3. Bennett, 167.

4. Vendler, 94.

5. New York: Ballantine Books, 1962; see esp. Chapter 8, “From
Religious Sacrifice to Eroticism.”

6. See esp. Sexual Personae, 624-628. Paglia writes, “The brutality of
this Belle of Amherst would stop a truck. She is a virtuoso of
sadomasochistic surrealism” (624).

7. Bennett writes, “A network of specifically female genital images,
including both the vagina and the clitoris . . . pervades her work”
(154).