Tom Shakespeare

When I explain that you are listening to one of a series of essays about artists with disabilities, you can imagine how I could proceed.  I might remind you of a famous name, and point out that he or she happened to have been disabled all along.  Edward Lear, for example, whose nonsense rhymes and watercolours are known to everyone, and who turns out to have been severely affected by epilepsy.  No argument there, although it might be harder to uncover how exactly his illness made a difference to his life and work.  Or alternatively, I could introduce you to a lesser-known writer or painter or musician, who made a significant achievement despite his or her impairment.  In this series, you will encounter the Syrian poet Al Ma’ari and the Cornish painter Bryan Pearce, quite possibly for the first time.  Finally, I could take the more controversial route, and lay claim to a famous name, whom no one has ever consider to be disabled, and show how her eccentricities can be best be explained in terms of an underlying impairment.

Such a one is the gloriously original American poet, Emily Dickinson. At school, our English curriculum comprised the classics – Joseph Conrad, Tom Stoppard, King Lear, Chaucer – but with a healthy sideline in eccentricity – Ivor Gurney, Edward Thomas – to keep our fevered teenage imaginations interested.  None more so, of course, than Emily Dickinson, the white-clad, ghostlike, hermit of Amherst, with her elliptical fragments of dash-punctuated verse. Eagerly we took her to our puzzled hearts, perhaps because there is something adolescent about much of her work – intense, self-indulgent, romantic. I can still remember my favourite:


Exultation is the going

Of an inland soul to sea,

Past the houses – past the headlands –

Into deep Eternity.


Bred as we, among the mountains,

Can the sailor understand

The divine intoxication

Of the first league out from land?

Born in 1830, to a typical New England bourgeois family, Emily’s parents were rather lacking.  Later she said that she “never had a mother.  I suppose a mother is one to whom you hurry when you are troubled.”  Her Aunt Lavinia provided some love and affection, describing Emily as “a very good child and but little trouble.”   In later life, Emily seemed to have a nostalgia for the frankness, absorption and immediacy of childhood.   Her seven years at the local Amherst Academy were a period of joy for her.  She wrote to a friend “you know I am always in love with my teachers”.  She had a supportive circle of young women friends, was talented in music, and developed a rich interest in geology, botany and other natural sciences.

Aged 16, she went on to Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, the first women’s college in America. Here, despite her recognized brilliance, she did not fit in, partly because she rejected the dominant Christian revivalist ethos, and also because of home sickness. After periods of ill-health, she was removed from the college at the age of 17.

As her friend Emily Ford said later, at this time there was nothing of the recluse about Emily.  She was a free talker about what interested her.  She flooded her friends with letters.  Most of them were incapable or unwilling to respond with the intensity which she demanded.  One by one, as they got married, got jobs or otherwise moved away, her friends fell away.  Several of her friends and teachers died early.  Instead of following her peers into marriage or a career, Emily opted to become a poet, exploring her fascination with words and forever more speaking in riddles:

Tell all the Truth but tell it Slant –

Success in Circuit lies.

Emily spent the rest of her days in her family house, The Homestead, in the bedroom overlooking the graveyard.  Although at first she would walk her dog Carlo, named after the dog in Jane Eyre, a book she particularly loved, she increasingly began to withdraw from society.  For nearly thirty years she looked after her mother, herself an invalid. Her father created a conservatory for her, so she could experience nature without leaving the house: she was a great gardener and amateur botanist. In the last fifteen years of her life she became reclusive, and was protected and supported in her isolation by her father, by her sister Lavinia, and by her sister-in-law Susan “most beloved friend, influence, muse, and adviser”  to whom many of the poems were addressed.

Solitary, but demanding of love and attention, Emily was a very active correspondent, sending her work out to friends for feedback.   Her relationships with men were few, intense and conducted mainly via letters. Later in life, she had an intimate friendship with a local widower, Judge Otis Lord, reading Shakespeare together, flirting and even sitting on his lap, but when he asked her to marry him, she turned him down.

All this time, the locked cherrywood chest against the wall of her bedroom began to fill up with poems, on scraps of paper, loose leaves, but also in 40 handmade booklets which were only discovered after her death, containing over 800 short poems. Poems about flowers, mysterious and passionate love poems, religious poems like demented hymns, and above all poem after poem about death:

“Because I could not stop for Death –

He kindly stopped for me –

The Carriage held but just Ourselves-

And immortality”

Among her influences – Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the Brontes, George Eliot – was the Book of Revelation. Independent in religion as in other areas of life, Emily was inclined to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transcendentalism, rather than conforming to local Protestant orthodoxy:

“Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –

I keep it, staying at Home”

Emily had made several efforts to get her work published, for example exchanging many letters with the critic Thomas Wentworth Higginson and with Samuel Bowles, the editor of The Springfield Republican, a local newspaper, but always with disappointing results.  Higginson described the work to a friend as “remarkable, though odd… too delicate – not strong enough to publish.”   When he met her, he said “She was much too enigmatic a being for me to solve in an hour’s interview”.  His wife said to him, about Emily “Oh why do the insane so cling to you?”.  Emily Dickinson’s frank, obscure and passionate poetry was barely understood or appreciated by contemporaries, and only a dozen examples were published in her lifetime, and in toned-down versions.

After her death at age 55, probably from kidney disease, 1800 poems were uncovered by her sister Lavinia. This extraordinary poetic legacy was fought over by her relatives, and particularly by her brother Austin’s mistress, Mabel Loomis Todd, who was one of the few to recognise her genius. Todd co-edited a selected volume published in 1890, though with editorial changes to suit contemporary tastes. It took some years, together with much effort to restore the original versions of the work for the 1955 complete edition. By this time, Emily Dickinson had become recognized as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of all American poets.

Why did Dickinson choose her solitary and unusual form of life?  How did she become such an original poetic voice?  This mystery has preoccupied biographers and critics ever since.  The dominant Myth explains Emily’s life in terms of an over-bearing father and a disappointment in love which turned her into an eccentric recluse.  Others have sought clues in her physical or mental health. Could it have been tuberculosis?  In the early 1840s, approximately a quarter of the inhabitants of Amherst were dying of TB, including a dozen of Emily’s extended family.   She had respiratory illness at Mount Holyoake, and later lost a lot of weight.  Or, as has been suggested, did her behaviour show symptoms of what we know as manic depression? What secrets were  her reticent family hiding, out of respect for her privacy or fear of embarrassment?

A recent account of the Dickinson family by Lyndall Gordon maintains that the secret of Emily’s seclusion and spinsterdom might lie in epilepsy, a condition which is known to have affected other members of the extended family:

“Nature – sometimes sears a sapling

Sometimes – scalps a tree”

In 1851, aged 20, Emily had privately consulted Dr James Jackson of Boston. Gordon suggests that they spoke candidly about her condition, and that he advised a mode of existence that would mitigate her suffering, and offer her comfort and even fulfillment. Emily was prescribed a solution of glycerine-and-water, one of the nineteenth century nostrums for epilepsy, although at a concentration which suggests to Gordon that it was only ever intended as a placebo. Another doctor advised that it was better to avoid exposure to sunlight, which could exacerbate seizures:

“The Brain within its Groove

Runs evenly”

Until a “Splinter swerve”

According to Gordon, the whole affair was kept secret, because epilepsy was at that time so highly stigmatized. The disease was associated with syphilis, masturbation, hysteria, even insanity, and it would have been shaming to the poet and her family had her disability been known. Because seizures might strike at any time with only a few minutes warning, it was better to hide from strangers. To avoid discovery or embarrassment, it was preferable to avoid close contact and never to marry – “by birth a Batchelor”. Becoming a reclusive writer was the ideal solution. Aged 43, she even remained in her bedroom during her father’s funeral.

Certainly, many of the poems seem compatible with this suggestion:

“I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,

And Mourners to and fro

Kept treading – treading – till it seemed

That Sense was breaking through.”

Gordon’s explanation could be challenged.  Norbert Hirschhorn, for example, considers that the glycerine treatment was for tuberculosis, not epilepsy.    He also refutes the claim that other family had epilepsy.  Remembering that other scholars have posited lupus, schizophrenia, manic depression or agrophobia as explanations, we should probably be sceptical about the epilepsy explanation.  As with the life of William Shakespeare, the popular fascination plus the lack of solid evidence has allowed the critics’ imagination to run riot.  XX says “The difficulty for the biographer coming in the wake of all this is the impossibility of saying an absolute ‘no’ to all but the wildest speculation.”  Her sister Lavinia said at the time

“Emily never had any love disaster, she had the choiset friendships among the rarest men and women all her life, and was cut to the quick when death robbed her again and again […] Emily’s so called withdrawal from general society, for which she never cared, was only a happen.  Our mother had a period of invalidism and one of her daughters must be constantly at home; Emily chose this part and, finding the life with her books and nature so congenial, continued to live it, always seeing her chosen friends and doing her part for the happiness of home. […] There has been an endeavour to invent and enforce a reason for Emily’s peculiar and wonderful genius.”

But Lavinia seems to be too coy.  Emily Dickinson’s life was far from normal, even by the standards of the time.  Whatever the diagnosis, it does seem plausible to me that some form of physical or mental illness may been the cause which freed Emily Dickinson from the demands made on other late nineteenth century women – marriage, children, social obligations – and which enabled her to express and explore her unique voice.

There are certainly other artists and writers where it is clear that the seclusion brought on by their disability was one of the factors in their achieving greatness.  One example is the nineteenth century Finnish painter, Helene Schlerferbeck.   She fell down a flight of stairs as a child, and damaged her hip.  Because she was then crippled, she did not attend the local school like other children.  She stayed at home, and spent her time alone.  By channelling all her energies and her frustrations and her imagination into painting, she became a brilliant artist.  Another instance is the Scottish poet William Soutar.  He became an invalid at a young age, lived at home in his parents’ house, and developed his own distinctive Scots poetic idiom.  So disability can perhaps be a gift for a creative mind, because it shuts off other channels and distractions.

Retrospective diagnosis is always perilous, and we can never know for sure, as with Florence Nightingale and many other  historical figures, whether we are justified in claiming them as disabled people.   Illness and impairment are part of life, and are extremely common, probably more so in previous generations.   Today, at any one time, 15% of  the population is affected by disability.  Whether because of a neurological or psychiatric condition, or perhaps more simply because of her unusual psychological outlet, Emily Dickinson undoubtedly ended up focused on her art. She had no husband to support or children to look after.  She did not even engage in the ordinary social obligations of her class and time.  Instead she thought, read, and above all, wrote.  As she said in one of her letters:

“So I conclude that space and time are things of the body & have little or nothing to do with our selves.  My Country is Truth.”