The Belle and the Bard

The First Folio held court in Amherst, MA, late last spring, when purple graduation balloons hovered over the green hills of the college and minivans lined its streets. For the younger siblings, the ...

The First Folio held court in Amherst, MA, late last spring, when purple graduation balloons hovered over the green hills of the college and minivans lined its streets. For the younger siblings, the town offered cotton candy and carnival games; for the parents, a visit from Shakespeare himself. The famous book was displayed in a gallery in the Mead Art Museum, splayed open on a pedestal in the center of the room. Visitors huddled around its pages, whispering their s’s as f’s.1

Just down the road, travelers made pilgrimage to another literary landmark, the home of a poet whose works survived her death in hand-sewn packets, stored in a bedroom drawer. That day, the small town played host to two writers whose legacies loom larger than life: Emily Dickinson and William Shakespeare, the Belle of Amherst and the Bard.

Two writers who took rather opposite paths to literary fame: Emily Dickinson and William Shakespeare.

Two writers who took rather opposite paths to literary fame: Emily Dickinson and William Shakespeare.

No writer could have predicted such future fame, but if we take his sonnets as his word, then Shakespeare expected at least a bit of it. “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments / Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme,” he wrote.2 The reality merely surpassed his expectations; his rhyme, as recorded in the First Folio, has become a monument in more than metaphor. Dickinson, on the other hand, declared herself in poetry a “nobody,” and called fame “the one that does not stay.”3

Yet fame did stay, for both writers. It stayed for the playwright who recorded so little of his life that he left centuries of readers searching for proof of his authorship—and even his existence—and for the poet whose stores of letters and manuscripts beguile some of us even more.

Fame of all sorts is strange, but literary fame creates a particular puzzle. The First Folio is prefaced with a poem by Ben Jonson, hailing the works that follow as “not of an age, but for all time”; we praise great literature as “universal,” able to transcend space and years. Yet literary fame has us traveling back to the place where an author lived and worked, or awaiting the arrival of an old book whose basic contents we can easily and fully access any number of ways. Don’t Shakespeare’s words read as sweet in paperback? Is Dickinson’s house a fairer one than Possibility?


Even before the First Folio made its grand tour of the States, nearly everyone claimed a piece of Shakespeare. As Samuel Schoenbaum and others have documented, the Victorian residents of Stratford-upon-Avon built a veritable industry around the Bard’s so-called relics. The schoolmaster of the Guild Chapel showed off young William’s corner desk. The owner of the Shakespeare Hotel offered guests a peek at the playwright’s clock, while his rival at the Falcon Inn claimed his shovel-board. Nearly every home offered visitors a seat on his chair; nearly every tavern offered his stool.4

By the late 18th century, boasts of the Bard’s buttocks had inspired full-fledged tourist attractions. Dickens, Byron, Tennyson, and Thackeray were among the notables who visited the birthplace, signing their names in a guest registry now as famous as the site itself. A replica of the birthplace even attracted visitors to Surrey.5

In Emily Dickinson’s Shakespeare, Paraic Finnerty describes the Stratford-upon-Avon of the poet’s day as a place where “belief and unbelief coexist, and contradictions are tolerated.”6 American writers who visited the site found it simultaneously awe-inspiring and disappointing, genuine and deceptive, holy and vulgar.

Washington Irving, who recorded his visit to Stratford-upon-Avon in his Sketch Book, made a “poetical pilgrimage” to the site, where he “dreamt of Shakespeare all night” before his tour. Upon his arrival, though, he met a “garrulous old lady… garnished with artificial locks of flaxen hair,” who showed him relics no more genuine than her blonde tresses.7

Irving raised an eyebrow at his guide’s claim of linear descent from Shakespeare after she showed him a manuscript of her own writing. But he chose—despite his skepticism—to believe in the illusion. Though he mocked the guests who sat in Shakespeare’s chair “with the hope of imbibing any of the inspiration of the Bard,” he, too, felt inspired by the writer’s ghostly presence.8 Walking past the quaint cottages of Shakespeare’s boyhood, he could not help but feel “the whole country here is poetic ground,” and at the Bard’s gravesite, he marveled at “the dust of Shakespeare.”9

“I am… a ready believer in relics, legends, and local anecdotes of goblins and great men,” Irving wrote, “and would advise all travellers who travel for their gratification to be the same.”8

Historian Julia Thomas has noted in her history of the birthplace, Shakespeare’s Shrine, that the contradictory feelings evoked by a visit to Stratford-upon-Avon came to a head when the Bard’s house went up for auction in 1847. To save the “priceless” building from its fate on the commercial market, the Royal Shakespearean Club called for subscriptions from the general public. Newspaper advertisements invoked the sanctity of the birthplace even as they asked for the people’s money. The Athenaeum lamented that the “heart-stirring relic” would be “carried away piece-meal and cut into tobacco strips.” The Shakespere Newspaper expressed astonishment—in verse, no less—at “such a mansion being up for sale.”11

Even as they protested the auction of Shakespeare’s belongings—or his supposed belongings—such newspapers placed a financial as well as an emotional value on them. Like Irving, they sanctified the birthplace even as they recognized it as a site of commercial exploitation and inauthenticity. They were faithful even as they doubted, willing to believe without foregoing their doubt.


“Publication is the auction of the mind,” Dickinson famously wrote, not long after the auction of the Bard’s home.12 That the poet only ever published 10 of her nearly two thousand poems in her lifetime—and did so anonymously—fits in with the vision of the white-clad recluse who ran upstairs when visitors called. Dickinson’s statements about fame, that “fickle food,” and her own self-diminishing descriptions seem to corroborate the idea that the poet shunned sharing her writing with the public as surely as she shunned the neighbors who knocked on her door.

Dickinson has been psychoanalyzed, mythologized, and manufactured practically out of existence.

We must be wary, though, of buying into such myths, and of taking Dickinson’s words at face value. The extent of Dickinson’s withdrawal has been exaggerated (she lived, after all, in a lively and literary college town, in a household often at its intellectual and social center), and perhaps her objections to fame have been, too.

The best evidence that Dickinson, in fact, wanted to publish comes from the first letter she wrote to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, in response to his call for submissions in The Atlantic Monthly. “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive?” she famously asked him, enclosing four poems.13

Higginson discouraged Dickinson from publishing, and some have speculated that she gave up when she failed to earn his approval. Yet when her sister-in-law, Susan, published Dickinson’s poem “The Snake” in a magazine without the poet’s permission, she protested to Higginson that she had been “robbed.” “I had told you I did not print,” she wrote. Her published poem had been “defeated” by an edit of her punctuation.14

In his essay “The Glimmering Frontier: Emily Dickinson and Publication,” Martin Greenup looks to Dickinson’s poems to answer the publication question. “Fame is the one that does not stay” and “Fame is a fickle food” provide obvious answers, but Poem 536 offers a somewhat more complicated meditation on the topic:

 

Some — Work for Immortality —

The Chiefer part, for Time —

He — Compensates — immediately —

The former — Checks — on Fame —

 

Slow Gold — but Everlasting —

The Bullion of Today —

Contrasted with the Currency

Of Immortality —

 

A Beggar — Here and There —

Is gifted to discern

Beyond the Broker’s insight —

One’s — Money — One’s — the Mine —15

 

Whereas in Poem 788, “the Auction / of the Mind” stands in clear opposition to “Heavenly Grace,” here the contrast between material reward and divine approval breaks down in metaphor. As Greenup notes, to “work for immortality” would be a paradox in Puritan ideology.16 Yet by writing poetry, Dickinson does just that. If “the currency of immortality” is more “everlasting”—and perhaps a bit less vulgar—than “the bullion of today,” it is currency, nonetheless. The career that Dickinson claims as “mine” does, she acknowledges, necessitate a transaction: of effort for insight, if not effort for cash. In other words, perhaps the boundary between pure creativity and selling out is not quite so clear.

It seems that the sort of literary fame Dickinson feared most was the sort that distorted the literature itself (or the litterateur herself). The publication of “Snake” was robbery, in part, because it disregarded her editorial decisions. Corresponding with Higginson about a new account of George Eliot’s life, Dickinson wrote that “Biography first convinces us of the fleeing of the Biographied.”17

Of course, Dickinson’s literary legacy has included much distortion. When Higginson and Lavinia, the poet’s sister, published Dickinson’s poems after her death, they made extensive edits to her punctuation and capitalization. Only in 1955 did Thomas H. Johnson attempt to match Dickinson’s original manuscripts, and only in 1981 did Ralph W. Franklin publish the poems in their original order. Meanwhile, competing and often essentialized versions of Dickinson herself emerged in popular culture. She has been, in the eyes of biographers and of the public, a dainty Victorian maiden; a Madwoman in the Attic; a Belle of Amherst; a lover of her mysterious “Master,” and perhaps of her sister-in-law, too. She has been psychoanalyzed, mythologized, and manufactured practically out of existence.

Artists from Susan Howe—who titled her ode to the poet “My Emily Dickinson”—to Jerome Charyn—who presents Dickinson as his personal muse, or seducer, in his recent interpretive biography, A Loaded Gun—to Terence Davies—who identifies Dickinson’s creative journey with his own in his latest film, A Quiet Passion—have immortalized their personal Dickinson. Like the 19th-century residents of Stratford-upon-Avon, they’ve all claimed a piece of her.


If the 19th-century Stratford-upon-Avon industry propounded myths about Shakespeare, then the Emily Dickinson Museum tries to dispel some of the legends about the poet. Staff hope that a firsthand look at Dickinson’s home and belongings might help visitors find the Dickinson behind the legends. The biographied might flee from the biographer, but she’s trapped in her own house.

According to the museum’s executive director, Jane Wald, the site strives for total historical accuracy. Staff spare no detail, leave no stone unturned (literally: the museum has spent the last few years uncovering a small conservatory on the Homestead’s grounds). Though the Dickinson Museum does not have all of Dickinson’s real furniture—much of the poet’s bedroom is housed at Harvard’s Houghton Library—Wald and her colleagues have attempted to make each room in the house look as much as possible like it did when Dickinson lived there. In the poet’s bedroom, restorers have based their work on fragments of the original 19th-century wallpaper.

The Emily Dickinson Homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts, Dickinson's Stratford-upon-Avon. Photo by Bart Everson / Flickr.com

The Emily Dickinson Homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts, Dickinson’s Stratford-upon-Avon. Photo by Bart Everson / Flickr.com

It’s harder to say, though, whether these literal and figurative excavations bring us any closer to the poet herself, or to her poetry. It’s harder to say whether we find immortality here, or just another auction.

When I tour the museum, led by a guide who tells me about Dickinson’s family and home life, I feel a little bit like Washington Irving. A woman in the group asks how the house would have been kept warm in 19th-century Amherst winters, how the family would have arranged the curtains, how a maid would make the bed. The tour guide responds dutifully, and as I learn more than I ever needed to know about Victorian interior design, I can’t help wondering whether these details help us imbibe the poet’s inspiration any more than sitting in her supposed chair.

Yet when I see the bedroom, and the wear on the floorboards where Dickinson once paced, I feel a little thrill. Like Irving, I choose to believe.

Dickinson herself can never tell us what she would have thought of the museum (Wald and her colleagues often wonder), but we do know something of how she felt about literary tourism. Corresponding with Higginson during his travels in England, she wrote, “to have seen Stratford on Avon … must be almost Peace.”18 When Mabel Loomis Todd crossed the Atlantic, the poet asked for a favor: “Touch Shakespeare for me.”19

Finnerty speculates that Dickinson—like Henry James, who admired how Shakespeare remained mysterious even to the tourists who fondled his possessions—might have seen literary tourism as a way of hiding from the public eye.20 Yet, in her desire for Todd to “touch Shakespeare for me,” she imagined not authorial disappearance but a tangible connection. By referencing only Shakespeare’s name, and not, say, Shakespeare’s chair, Dickinson suggests that the site facilitated a direct connection with the writer himself. She did not expect that a visit to Stratford-upon-Avon would bring literary enlightenment or another puzzle, but rather, simply, “peace.” Dickinson seems to put her conflicted feelings about literary fame aside when she considers Shakespeare’s birthplace. To touch, to see, was bliss.

Literary tourism—whether the site’s a sham or a study in historical accuracy—might not help us understand the literature we cherish. Then again, our close readings and our historical inquiries often leave us just as baffled. We’ll never really know what gave Shakespeare the inspiration to write Hamlet, or why Dickinson remained at home. Perhaps, then, the most we can do is sit in a chair and surrender to the illusion.

A few miles away from the Emily Dickinson Museum is the poet’s grave. On top of the simple tombstone, visitors have placed rocks, notes, poems, pens, beads, and even an iPhone. Small objects, left in offering for a poet long gone: the currency of immortality. icon

  1. The First Folio is the 1623 published collection of Shakespeare’s works, which many scholars consider the only reliable text for about 20 of the plays. It is believed that around 750 copies of the First Folio were printed, with 234 known copies surviving today. The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC holds the largest collection of First Folios in the world, with 82 copies. This year–the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death–the Folger Shakespeare Library, in partnership with Cincinnati Museum Center and the American Library Association, will exhibit the First Folio in all 50 states. As part of this tour, the First Folio was exhibited at the Mead Art Museum in Amherst, MA, May 9–31.
  2. William Shakespeare, Sonnet 55, in The Norton Anthology of Poetry, 3rd ed. (Norton, 1983).
  3. Emily Dickinson, Poems 260 and 1507, in The Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by By Ralph W. Franklin. (Harvard University Press, 1998).
  4. Samuel Schoenbaum, Shakespeare’s Lives (Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 46–49.
  5. Julia Thomas, Shakespeare’s Shrine: The Bard’s Birthplace and the Invention of Stratford-upon-Avon (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), pp. 36–37.
  6. Paraic Finnerty, Emily Dickinson’s Shakespeare (University of Massachusetts Press, 2006), p. 10.
  7. Washington Irving, “Stratford-on-Avon” (1820), The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (Longman, Green & Co., 1906), p. 273.
  8. Ibid., p. 274.
  9. Ibid., pp. 278 and 282.
  10. Ibid., p. 274.
  11. Quoted in Thomas, Shakespeare’s Shrine, pp. 43–47.
  12. Emily Dickinson, Poem 788, The Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by R. W. Franklin (Belknap, 1999).
  13. Emily Dickinson to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, April 15, 1862, in Emily Dickinson’s Correspondences, Dickinson Electronic Archives.
  14. Ibid., early 1866.
  15. Emily Dickinson, Poem 536, The Poems of Emily Dickinson.
  16. Martin Greenup, “The Glimmering Frontier: Emily Dickinson and Publication,” The Cambridge Quarterly vol. 33, no. 4 (2004), p. 349.
  17. Emily Dickinson to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, February 1885, in Emily Dickinson’s Correspondences, Dickinson Electronic Archives.
  18. Emily Dickinson to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, early June 1878, in Emily Dickinson’s Correspondences, Dickinson Electronic Archives.
  19. Emily Dickinson to Mabel Loomis Todd, summer 1885, in Emily Dickinson’s Correspondences, Dickinson Electronic Archives.
  20. Finnerty, Emily Dickinson’s Shakespeare, p. 14.
Featured image: Shakespeare's birthplace in 1981. Photo by Peter Broster / Flickr.com