Saturday, July 24, 2010

`A Friend Who Taught Me Immortality'

Bill Sigler tells me something I should have known but didn’t:

“Speaking of women poets, [Sir Thomas] Browne was the single biggest influence on Emily Dickinson. That's a fact, not a Sigler fact.”

Learning that those we admire admire others we admire is always a comfort, like introducing friends to friends and watching as they become friends. I’ve never read a biography of Dickinson though I often return to her poems. I’m content with their enigmas, some of the most satisfyingly mysterious in the language. In a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson on April 26, 1862, she writes:

“You inquire my books. For poets, I have Keats, and Mr. and Mrs. Browning. For prose, Mr. Ruskin, Sir Thomas Browne, and the Revelations. I went to school, but in your manner of the phrase had no education. When a little girl, I had a friend who taught me Immortality; but venturing too near, himself, he never returned.”

I should have noticed the affinity long ago. After all, who wrote this stanza?:

“Sleep is a death; oh, make me try
By sleeping what it is to die,
And as gently lay my head
On my grave as now my bed!”

Dickinson in the same letter to Higginson writes:

“You speak of Mr. Whitman, I never read his book, but was told that it was disgraceful.”

Sometimes our friends remain unfriendly.


Hydriotaphia said...

It's usually been considered that Browne's attempts at poetry rarely rise above the level of doggerel, so it's an interesting suggestion that his few lines influenced a poet of the stature of Dickinson.

It's also generally acknowledged that Johnson was greatly influenced by Browne's style; interesting that you should highlight 'Christian Morals' as especially influential.

Shall continue to follow your original observations on Browne in particular, recognizing a fellow Brunonian in study and spirit!

Hannah Stephenson said...

It is wonderful to imagine that everyone who inspires us is out there conspiring to win our affections :).

William A. Sigler said...

Great line, Hannah!

Great [Browne] quote, Patrick!

Georges Poulet talks a little about the link between the Browne and Dickinson in his book Circumference, but not many people touch this one, because both writers dwelled in a such a hermetic and eccentric compexity of mind, like rare earth elements endlessly mutating.

Here's Dickinson, by way of circuitous circumlocution to the ideas expressed above by Browne [from 743, she referring to the Summer she has decided to shut herself off from]:

"I recollected Her

She suffered Me, for I had mourned -
I offered Her no word -
My Witness - was the Crape I bore -
Her - Witness - was Her Dead -

Thenceforward - We - together dwelt -
I never questioned Her -
Our Contract
A Wiser Sympathy"