Wednesday, July 28, 2010

An Ode to Emily

The following is a piece I wrote on Emily Dickinson for a prototype magazine for people with depression. Consequently, the article focuses on depression and skims over the other thing about Emily that I love—our shared inability to form healthy relationships in the real world.  Because of this common trait, we'd probably never have been friends if we met, but separated by several hazy decades and united by stirring poetry, I get to feel like we're good friends! And now, on to the article.

In the long history of mood disorder sufferers in the arts, one person in particular stands out to me as the ambassador of the depressed—Emily Dickinson. Reading her poetry might at one moment carry one straight into sadness’ firmest embrace, and at another moment, restore one to hope with the simplest imagery of joy. Though I’ve not made it all the way through her voluminous writings, the ones I have read mirror my heart in such a way that I consider Emily a friend of mine…a long-lost sister. It might be a tad presumptuous to speak so familiarly of this person I’ve never met—but what I do know, and what I’ve read of her work, have convinced me that that she is my literary alter ego. And I’ll warrant that a good many depression sufferers might agree.

In Emily’s time – the mid 1800’s – depression was not a disease that doctors recognized or diagnosed. But Emily’s life certainly shows the signs. After the age of thirty, she hardly left her family’s property—sometimes never even left the house. She led the kind of solitary life that is both born of depression and fuels it.

Her writings speak of a broken heart, of tragic loss, of the truth in agony, of a subtle yearning for death. Her words take all the thoughts in my tortured soul and distill them to perfect clarity—and make them beautiful. In Emily’s poetry, the broken heart is elevated to glory: Proud of my broken heart since thou didst break it / Proud of the pain I did not feel till thee... The tragic loss is an avenue to spirituality: At least to pray is left, is left / O Jesus! in the air… It is a true artist who can reveal the glimmer of loveliness in anguish, without letting the anguish lose its sting. But Emily’s poetry succeeds again and again.

Wherever I look amongst Emily’s poems, I find my timid lost self, speaking in her voice. But the thing that I find most remarkable is, even though Emily is so adept at expressing the pain that lies within every depressed heart, she is equally adept at dispelling it. One of my favorite poems in her repertoire goes thus:
HOPE is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all…
Emily’s hope never stopped singing. It is her hope that reminds me there is a light at the end of every tunnel. Actually, not just a light—a cute fuzzy bird! What more could I hope for? Once in a poem, Emily wished, If I can ease one life the aching…I shall not live in vain. Emily, you have succeeded. Thank you for your wisdom and your hope.

Readers, Emily Dickinson’s poetry is freely available for anyone who needs it. Visit her anthology, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, at