Excerpt: 'A Summer of Hummingbirds'

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A Summer of Hummingbirds
By Christopher Benfey
Hardcover, 304 pages
List Price: $25.95
Note: The author's footnotes have been omitted.

Chapter 9

In late September 1882, Mabel Todd sent Emily Dickinson a painting of Indian pipes, a white woodland plant common in New England. Dickinson sent in return an oblique poem with an explanatory note: "I cannot make an Indian Pipe but please accept a Humming Bird." The exchange of gifts had lasting repercussions for American literature. Here is the eight-line poem Dickinson sent:


A Route of Evanescence
A Resonance of Emerald—
A Rush of Cochineal,
And every Blossom on the Bush
Adjusts its tumbled Head—
The Mail from Tunis probably,
An easy Morning's Ride—

It is an exchange of enigmas: a riddle poem about an elusive bird that bats its wings in order to stand still, and a painting of a spectral plant without chlorophyll, like an image of the shade-seeking Emily Dickinson herself, all dressed in white.

On September 10, the day before the "Rubicon," Mabel Todd had sung and played the piano for the Dickinson spinster sisters, fifty-two-year-old Emily and her younger sister, Lavinia, in the Homestead. Mabel Todd noted in her diary: "Before tea I had a walk with dear Mr. D. Senior, & called at the other house to see Miss Vinnie Dickinson. I sang there, & the rare, mysterious Emily listened in the quiet darkness outside." The "Mr. D. Senior" Mabel Todd refers to is Austin. (No mention is made of Emily's invalid mother, confined to her bed in the Homestead.) Mabel Todd did not actually meet Emily Dickinson that day, as she played Beethoven and sang a few arias for the mysterious recluse upstairs. It is a startling fact that Mabel never did set eyes on Emily—never, that is, while Emily was alive. Their friendship, such as it was, was destined to be played out at a discreet distance.

Soon after her Sunday recital at the Homestead, Mabel Loomis Todd traveled with her daughter, Millicent, to Washington to visit her father. Her recital at the Homestead was still vivid in Mabel's mind. "It was odd to think," she wrote in her journal on September 15, "as my voice rang out through the big silent house that Miss Emily in her weird white dress was outside in the shadow hearing every word." The same journal entry includes Mabel Todd's well-known description of Emily Dickinson as the eccentric "myth" of Amherst:

She has not been out of her house for fifteen years. One inevitably thinks of Miss Haversham in speaking of her. She writes the strangest poems, & very remarkable ones. She is in many respects a genius. She wears always white, & has her hair arranged as was the fashion fifteen years ago when she went into retirement. She wanted me to come & sing to her, but she would not see me... No one has seen her in all those years except her own family.

On September 22, still in Washington, Mabel painted her present for Emily. It was, Todd recalled, a "sudden inspiration," as she "looked about over my [flower] studies," to paint "the Indian pipe (monotropa) on a black panel for her." Todd grouped the graceful white flowers in a sort of frieze, like dancers bowing to an audience, against a black background. The uncanny effect is that of a photographic negative.

Emily Dickinson's extravagant written response, on September 30, 1882, confirmed Mabel Todd's intuition of a resemblance between the ghostly white flower and the reclusive poet dressed in white:

That without suspecting it you should send me the preferred flower of life, seems almost supernatural, and the sweet glee that I felt at meeting it, I could confide to none—I still cherish the clutch with which I bore it from the ground when a wondering child, an unearthly booty, and maturity only enhances mystery, never decreases it—

The whole passage is imbued with the sorcery of death and resurrection: this "flower of life" lives on rotting wood and comes from the underworld; the "unearthly booty" is also an unearthly "body."

Before Mabel Todd entered the gate of the Dickinsons' picket fence that September, and mounted the stone steps to the Homestead, she had received a surprising warning from Susan Dickinson next door. The Dickinson sisters, Sue informed her, "have not, either of them, any idea of morality." She added, "I went in there one day, and in the drawing room I found Emily reclining in the arms of a man."11 It was Emily Dickinson's strange fate to be granted two long-cherished wishes at a time in her life when it was no longer clear that she wanted either one. The summer of 1882 brought fulfillment of both wishes, marriage and publication, within the realm of intoxicating possibility.

For Emily Dickinson was in love that summer, passionately in love, and she was loved in return. At first, there was every reason to keep the love affair private, because Dickinson's lover was a married man, and second, because he was a close friend, the closest friend, in fact, of her own father. The secrecy makes it difficult to reconstruct the origin of the affair, but it seems reasonable to look back twenty years, to the summer of 1862, when Judge Otis Lord went up against Henry Ward Beecher at the Amherst College commencement.

Lord was a frequent visitor in Amherst throughout the intervening years. He regularly visited his alma mater, and paid calls on both Dickinson houses. In 1875, he was elevated to the Massachusetts Supreme Court, and for a part of each year he presided over sessions in Northampton. On December 10, 1877—Emily Dickinson's forty-seventh birthday—Lord's wife died, clearing one obstacle to what may already have become an intimate relationship. The death of Dickinson's father in 1874 had cleared another. Within months of Mrs. Lord's death, Emily Dickinson's letters had reached an ecstatic pitch:

My lovely Salem smiles at me. I seek his Face so often—but I have done with guises. I confess that I love him—I rejoice that I love him—I thank the maker of Heaven and Earth—that gave him me to love—the exultation floods me. I cannot find my channel—the Creek turns Sea—at thought of thee—

Lord's visits at the Homestead intensified; he practically lived in Amherst during August and September 1880, and it was presumably around this time that Susan Dickinson saw Emily reclining in his arms.

By the spring of 1882 Dickinson and Lord had reached an understanding. On April 16 there was a momentous visit, followed, on April 30, by a remarkable letter from Emily Dickinson. "Our Life together was long forgiveness on your part toward me," she wrote. "I never knelt to other."

She mailed the letter on May 1. "I shall never forget 'May Day,'" she wrote a week later. Lavinia had returned to the Homestead that day, having seen Austin on his way to the train. He had bad news. Otis Lord was gravely ill, and not expected to live. Dickinson remembered the terrible moment. "I grasped at a passing Chair. My sight slipped and I thought I was freezing." She dropped into the arms of Tom Kelley, her beloved servant. "He will be better," Kelley said. "Don't cry Miss Emily. I could not see you cry." Kelley was right. Lord did recover, though this proof of his fragility was a reminder of the transience of earthly things. Meanwhile, the birds were returning, the flowers were blooming, and New England was rounding into summer.

Excerpted from A Summer of Hummingbirds by Christopher Benfrey. Copyright (c) 2008 by Christopher Benfrey. Reprinted with permission from Penguin Press. All rights reserved.

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A Summer of Hummingbirds
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