“How Soft This Prison Is”: Reading Emily Dickinson in Quarantine

As we spend our days in isolation and uncertainty, we thought it fitting to revisit the poems of Emily Dickinson, who led a singular and solitary life, reminding us of the importance of maintaining a rich inner world.

By Adriana Wiszniewska

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) spent the majority of her life in and around her father’s homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she lived and died in relative seclusion. She never married, rarely travelled, and most of her interactions with people occurred through letters and other correspondence. By the final years of her life, she barely even left her bedroom.

If that sounds familiar to you, you’re not alone. Nowadays, while a pandemic sweeps the globe, most of us spend our days confined to our bedrooms or our living rooms, only interacting with those we care about from a distance. Technology helps, to be sure. But there’s no doubt that a lot of us are feeling isolated and anxious during this uncertain time. Who better to turn to for some solace than Emily Dickinson?

Maureen N. McLane calls Dickinson “a homegrown poet of terror, abjection, and difficulty.” Dickinson often wrote about death and the nature of consciousness, the negation of self and the discomfort of being a body in the world.

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Big mood. Hailee Steinfeld as Emily Dickinson in Apple TV+’s Dickinson, which puts a modern spin on the poet’s life and work. Photo: Giphy

She was no stranger to solitude. In a letter to her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert, Dickinson wrote: “I would paint a portrait which would bring the tears, had I a canvass for it, and the scene should be—solitude, and the figures—solitude—and the lights and shades each a solitude. I could fill a chamber with landscapes so lone, men should pause and weep there; then haste grateful home, for a loved one left.”

There’s a lot of debate about why Dickinson self-isolated, whether it was by choice or whether she was forced into seclusion due to illness of some kind (mental or otherwise). But I like what poet Adrienne Rich supposes: “I have a notion that genius knows itself; that Dickinson chose her seclusion, knowing she was exceptional and knowing what she needed. It was, moreover, no hermetic retreat, but a seclusion which included a wide range of people, of reading and correspondence.”

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Portrait of Emily Dickinson. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Dickinson chose seclusion because that’s what she needed in order to write the astonishing 1,789 poems she left behind.

And what her poems reveal is a sharp-witted, fierce, intelligent woman, who reinvented poetic form and carved her own path in life to the bewilderment of those around her. In short, her poems reveal the vastness of a rich inner life, something we could all work to cultivate during this time. When your external world is limited to a small town, or as is the case for many of us now, to house and home, then our inner worlds become our most important dwelling places. Per Dickinson:

The Brain – is wider than the Sky –
For – put them side by side –
The one the other will contain
With ease – and You – beside –

(632)

The mind, to paraphrase Milton, is its own place and can contain the whole sky or sea or anything besides, including you and me and everyone we know. Its capacity for imagination and wonder and expansive thought is unfathomable. More than this, our minds give us the ability to read and think and empathize with others, allowing for the expansion of our inner world.

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human Soul –

(1263)

Poetry is exceptional in its capacity to transport us. Through her imagination and her poetry, Dickinson could traverse any distance. By returning to her poems, and following her example—her keen observation of the beautiful details of her immediate world and her willingness to look within herself for substance and meaning—we might make the distance we all feel right now a little more bearable. After all,

Distance – is not the Realm of Fox
Nor by Relay of Bird
Abated – Distance is
Until thyself, Beloved.

(1155)

Here, Dickinson tells us that distance is not about physical space, the lengths a fox or a bird can travel. But the final line is tricky to decipher. Dickinson delights in ambiguity (“Tell all the truth but tell it slant”), taking her readers to a place where meaning loses stable footing. “Distance is / Until thyself, Beloved” could mean that distance is nothing more than the space between the speaker and their beloved. But “thyself” could also be an address to the reader or to the speaker herself, suggesting that physical distance pales in comparison to metaphysical distance, the distance that we feel within. Knowledge of self, having an inner life as sharp and imaginative as Dickinson’s, is how we really overcome distance. And we will overcome this distance.

Dickinson sums it up best in one of my favourite poems:

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“I dwell in Possibility” manuscript. Photo: Emily Dickinson Archive

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

(657)

Although we remain confined to our houses, Emily Dickinson shows us one way, at least, that we might use this time to dwell not in the physical isolation we feel, but in the inherent possibility of our own minds.

For more on how poetry can be a balm in times of solitude, check out Serena Ypelaar on Wordsworth and the transportive power of nature.

The Longest and Most Charming Love Letter in Literature

A love letter can be one of the most intimate ways to express love and affection to another. Thankfully for us, some of the greatest writers in English literature also wrote beautiful letters, which often take on new life after the deaths of their writers and recipients.

By Adriana Wiszniewska

In 1928, Virginia Woolf published Orlando, a novel about a poet who lives for centuries and changes from man to woman. The book was inspired by Vita Sackville-West, with whom Virginia had a decades-long romance and later friendship. Sackville-West’s son, Nigel Nicolson, famously described Orlando as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.” The book is really an ode to Vita in all her complexities and contradictions and a testament to the power of language and story to express the most complicated human experiences. Fitting, too, that Nicolson likened Orlando to a love letter, since Vita and Virginia wrote letters to one another from their first encounter in 1922 until Virginia’s death in 1941.

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Vita Sackville-West (left) and Virginia Woolf (right). Photo: Time

In the age of Internet dating, it’s easier than ever to stay connected, but convenience has in some ways come at the expense of creativity. Somewhere along the way, sliding into your crush’s DMs became the primary mode of expressing romantic interest. Love letters, by comparison, seem like a dying art form.

There’s something strangely fascinating about reading another person’s intimate letters, like peering behind a curtain you’re not supposed to. Letters, after all, are meant to be private. Yet, our inclination to uncover the private lives of public figures persists.

Writers like John Keats, Franz Kafka, Emily Dickinson, and Woolf, among many others, were all exceptional diarists and letter-writers as well as poets and novelists. It’s a curious thing to read the most intimate writings of our favourite writers—like realizing your professors are human beings who have entire lives outside of the academy. The letters of writers continue to be published posthumously not only because they make for interesting historical documents, but also because they offer insight into the remarkable and mundane inner lives of often exalted figures.

The love letter, in particular, reflects exactly what makes the medium of letters so special. Call me a hopeless romantic, but reading the most intimate expressions of love and desire between two people is kind of swoon-worthy. The power of reading these love letters comes from the medium itself, which is at once private and public, immediate and remote, intimate and mundane, fleeting and permanent.

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Vita and Virginia and dogs! Photo: Charleston

Vita and Virginia wrote letters to each other throughout the entirety of their complex and shifting relationship, and through those letters, we get a glimpse of just how much the two meant to each other, how much impact each left on the other’s life and art. Their letters to each other are a chronicle of human connection, captured across space and time.

In perhaps my favourite love letter of all time, Vita writes to Virginia:

I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia. I composed a beautiful letter to you in the sleepless nightmare hours of the night, and it has all gone: I just miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way. You, with all your undumb letters, would never write so elementary a phrase as that; perhaps you wouldn’t even feel it. And yet I believe you’ll be sensible of a little gap. But you’d clothe it in so exquisite a phrase that it should lose a little of its reality. Whereas with me it is quite stark: I miss you even more than I could have believed; and I was prepared to miss you a good deal. So this letter is really just a squeal of pain. It is incredible how essential to me you have become. I suppose you are accustomed to people saying these things. Damn you, spoilt creature; I shan’t make you love me any more by giving myself away like this — But oh my dear, I can’t be clever and stand-offish with you: I love you too much for that. Too truly. You have no idea how stand-offish I can be with people I don’t love. I have brought it to a fine art. But you have broken down my defenses. And I don’t really resent it.

January 1926

That’s the beauty of a letter: it’s there and then it’s gone. Here, Vita puts her feelings in the starkest of terms: simple, honest, vulnerable. But the “little gap” she talks about is present also in the form of the letter. There is always a gap in what we can know from these missives. We get only a glimpse but are unable to fully grasp all that remains unspoken and what happens between the acts. But that’s also what makes reading these letters such a unique experience: we’re only getting a part of the story. Some of it will be forever unavailable to us. And maybe that’s exactly as it should be.

All Spoken Word Poetry Sounds the Same and I Hate It

In which the forces of the market, the conventions of genre, and the tyranny of the Youtube algorithm conspire to ruin poetry.

By Jenny Lee 

Consider: the hills you are willing to die on say more about you than any other aspect of your personality. In a long, compliant grade-school career, I refused to do two things outright, both times to preserve my dignity (which I prize jealously as a somewhat limited commodity).

The first was basketball. The second was writing and performing a slam poem, because I cannot bear to use Slam Poet Voice in the hearing of any living person.

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From the Poet Voice Hall of Fame: T.S. Eliot prepares to Intone. Photo: Alfred Eisenstaedt / LIFE

Slam Poet Voice, used in what seems like the vast majority of spoken word poetry, differs from Regular Poet Voice (also annoying, also ubiquitous) in its intensity: the Regular Poet intones weightily, while Slam Poet Voice is more of a yelp, delivered in a pitch slightly above normal speaking register and littered with dramatic but unnecessary pauses. Because slam poets perform without text in hand, they can also add baffling gestures. This … is … (sudden hand gesture) POETRY, says Slam Poet Voice, before rapidly listing eight vivid metaphors. Where did this voice come from and why do I hate it?

Slam poetry took off in large American cities during the 1980s and 90s, drawing on hip-hop and spoken word conventions. It is a sport, where teams of poets compete for points awarded by judges. Button Poetry, a poetry production company, started uploading filmed slam poems to YouTube in 2011; you may know their viral recording of Neil Hilborn’s poem ‘OCD’.

It’s these two factors, the standardization imposed by competition and the tyranny of the Youtube algorithm, which make Slam Poet Voice so ubiquitous. As popular works in a genre (see above) are widely consumed, they become widely imitated, and those imitations get their own imitations. Tropes turn to clichés as poets’ idea of a successful poem becomes ossified. We learn to write and perform through imitating the works that made us want to create in the first place.

Slam poets are working within frameworks that literally reward conforming to certain genre standards with cash prizes, YouTube hits, and book deals. They are implicitly under pressure to produce deeply confessional, emotionally intense works, and to perform them like they’ve seen other people perform their own confessional poems, live and on YouTube. One way of performing a text becomes the only way of performing any text, because coming up with a new delivery is often the hardest part of interpretation (ask any actor who’s played Hamlet; there are a finite number of ways to say a given set of words).

‘OCD’ has 14 million hits on YouTube, which is about as good as it gets for a poetry recitation. It’s a lovely, wrenching poem, and also, it is delivered in an iconic Slam Poetry Voice. This is the tragedy of cliché: not that it makes works bad, but that it renders good work ever so slightly more mediocre. By rendering all texts alike, Slam Poetry Voice stands in between the listener and the reception of any individual text on its own merits.

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I didn’t want to put any one hard-working slam poet on blast, so please click through to see Tom Hanks deliver a pitch-perfect Slam Poet Voice about … Full House? on the Tonight Show. 

In summation: competition and capitalism ruin art, avoid mediocrity by consuming as widely as possible, and I was right about that grade 12 English project, sorry Mr. Wade!

The pen is mightier than the sword, especially when it’s Jane Austen’s

243 years after Jane Austen’s birth, her words still loom large over the literary world –  and in the dialogue about women’s rights.

By Serena Ypelaar

Today is Jane Austen’s birthday.

This time every year, I’m left reflecting on the legacy of that talented and incredibly smart woman, one whose voice speaks so loudly in both her contemporary era and our own. Despite living in a male-dominated society, Austen’s wit and wisdom has pervaded the literary world and she remains one of Britain’s most prominent authors.

Jane Austen.
Photo: Goodreads

So on her birthday, I’d like to recall the significance of her work as a canon that redefined feminism even at such an early point in time.

The author of Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility, Persuasion, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, and Emma, among other titles, left an indelible mark on English literature as a writer who speaks from a distinctly feminine perspective in a patriarchal society.

“Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands.”

Anne Elliot discussing gender inequality in “Persuasion” (1817)

To paint a brief picture, in Austen’s society only landowning men could vote; genteel women of the middle and upper classes could only retain or augment social standing through a successful marriage. Even then, influence was confined to that of one’s husband, a notion at odds with today’s circumstances. Failure to marry well would usually result in spinsterhood, living with one’s parents for the remainder of one’s life (which was extremely embarrassing back then) and a complete lack of independence.

Despite all this, Austen rejected the marriage proposal she received from one Harris Bigg-Wither and instead committed to reconciling the two seemingly disparate lifestyles I’ve just mentioned: autonomy as a single woman.

How did she do it, you ask? She did it through her words, as a woman writer. She wrote about women’s experiences of Regency society, highlighting issues of income, class, personality, gender, and manners. She successfully sold her novels to earn money, making her quite entrepreneurial for a woman of her time. Her discerning assessments of the dynamic between men and women – despite being set 200 years before now – still resonate with us today, and her comments on the human condition have charmed readers of all genders and classes.

I have been open and sincere where I ought to have been reserved, spiritless, dull, and deceitful. Had I talked only of the weather and the roads, and had I spoken only once in ten minutes, this reproach would have been spared.

Marianne Dashwood describing the severe expectations of women in her society in “Sense and Sensibility” (1811)

Regardless of how I feel about today’s designation of “chick lit” as an excuse to dismiss female authorship, Austen owns her femininity unabashedly, delivering exacting jabs and insightful criticisms from the seat of an observer – each time a considerate and emotionally complex female character. What makes her so relevant today is that amidst the ongoing push for equal rights, people connect to her ability to find flaws in her society and propose solutions to them.

I hate to hear you talk about women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures. None of us want to be in calm waters all our lives. 

Anne Elliot in “Persuasion” (1817)

Since her books achieved mass popularity, Austen has served as an inspiration to many, though she’s not without her critics (jealous haters). Mark Twain, Charlotte Brontë, and other writers claimed to find no brilliance in her work, but as The Mindful Rambler is by no means a neutral publication, I feel no hesitation in discrediting their criticisms. Austen is brilliant because she represents the everyday. What might seem to some the banalities of the well-to-do in the countryside in fact set Austen apart, through the minutiae of her social criticisms and her practiced understanding of others. We’ve all met a Mrs. Bennet, whether she is our own mother, a voracious aunt, or otherwise; we all want to meet a Mr. Darcy (or Mr. Tilney of Northanger Abbey in my case, but I’m sure we’ll get to that in a future post).

A woman, especially if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.

Jane Austen employing her signature biting irony in “Northanger Abbey” (1817)

I write this from the perspective of a woman who loves writing too, and whose work has been shaped by two prominent female writers, J.K. Rowling and Austen herself. But while the former shies away from gender politics in favour of the ideological, the latter champions her gender through representation and highlights disparities between men’s and women’s quality of life. Austen does this using a combination of cultural nuances and hyperbolic characters, stressing important themes while more subtly suggesting at other details. The result is a complex but convincing illustration of feminism in the early 19th century, one that we can use to inform our discussions of feminist literature today. And we have a well-educated, unmarried woman in Regency England who forged her own path – despite the restrictions of her society – to thank for that.

Learn more about Jane Austen and her portrayal of women here.

In Defense of Fanfiction: Authors as Fanfic Writers

By Sadie MacDonald

Ah, fanfiction. Constantly derided, gleefully parodied, snidely dismissed. Even some creators are opposed to it (most famously Anne Rice, but also George R.R. Martin and Diana Gabaldon), preferring that fans refrain from writing fanfiction of their works.

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Tina Belcher, a teenage girl, shows us how it’s done in Bob’s Burgers. Photo: Know Your Meme.

I could argue about how sneering over fanfic tends to have a misogynist bent, as fanfic is generally seen as the realm of teenage girls. I could also point out that this dismissive attitude has tinges of homophobia, as most fanfiction is characterized as “slash fiction” (sexual relationships between same-sex characters generally not explored in the original canon), which is accordingly chided as ridiculous. However, in this post, I will stick to examining examples of fanfic produced by well-known creators, who seem to escape the stigma by virtue of being established authors. These authors nonetheless create fanfiction for the same reasons that ordinary teenagers do: to explore the unexplored, and to express love for the source material.

Fanfiction has existed for a long time. Virgil’s Aeneid is arguably fanfic of the Iliad, and is an example of a work that explores the unexplored, showing the other side of the Trojan War from the perspective of Trojan warrior Aeneas.

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Like The Iliad, The Aeneid itself has spawned its own iconic imagery, such as this 1598 painting by Frederico Barocci showing the flight of Aeneas and his family from Troy. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Pastiches often examine hidden perspectives and bring them to the forefront, frequently casting the original works in a new light. The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood puts a twist on the Odyssey by exploring the perspectives of Penelope and her twelve maids. Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea acts as a prequel to Jane Eyre, telling the story behind Mr. Rochester’s doomed first marriage and giving Bertha much-needed sympathy and humanity. Wicked by Gregory Maguire retells The Wizard of Oz from the viewpoint of the villainous Wicked Witch of the West, explaining the reasoning behind her decisions. Geraldine Brooks’ Little Women fanfiction March places much emphasis on slavery, an institution that defined the social and physical landscape of mid-19th century America but is left unspoken in Little Women. These examples show that beloved stories are still capable of revealing new discoveries.

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A Study in Emerald was later adapted into a comic book. Photo: Dark Horse Comics.

Not all fanfictions make changes to their source material, and there are many that seem to have been created for the sheer pleasure of engaging with a beloved work. Sherlock Holmes pastiches have existed since Arthur Conan Doyle’s days (and he cared little about what these creators did with his intellectual property). Even established novelists have participated in the Holmesian fun. Neil Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald” is actually a fanfiction of TWO works, H.P. Lovecraft’s universe and Sherlock Holmes, and serves as a love letter to both.

The persistence of Holmesian fandom, still active nearly a century after Doyle’s last Holmes story was published, shows how much audiences love Sherlock Holmes. We want to continue to have adventures with him, even if that means making our own adventures.

If professional authors can write fanfiction to great acclaim, why do we deride teenagers, just learning how to stretch their literary muscles, for doing the same? Seasoned authors have played in other creators’ sandboxes. Let emerging writers do the same.

The Curse of Not Teaching Cursive

Some school boards won’t teach cursive writing anymore. The impact of this decision bears heavily on the ability to write and read handwritten documents, with possible implications for historical interpretation.

By Serena Ypelaar

In our increasingly digital age, what will become of handwriting?

I’ve always found it fascinating to see people’s handwriting, and I associate the way they write with their personality, almost. At least, it’s a part of their identity. Being able to recognize people’s handwriting is also useful when you’re trying to tell who wrote something (it’s always interesting that Santa seems to have the same penmanship as Mum or Dad…).

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Photo: Michal Jarmoluk

Yet, with the domination of smartphones and laptops, we don’t have to hand-write notes or messages as often as before. As a lover of the written word, and a typography nerd, I feel a bit wistful reflecting on the disappearance of paper and pen.

One thing that strikes me is the choice of some school boards to cease teaching cursive writing to children. It’s something that’s happened in my own province of Ontario – kids are no longer going to learn cursive penmanship, meaning that they will have to resort to printing, in the case that they do write.

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A letter handwritten by Walt Whitman. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

I myself write an approximation between printing and cursive writing, wherein I drag my pen to connect the letters (it’s much easier and quicker than printing, but it’s not by-the-book cursive). However, I know how to read cursive writing – but will the people of the future?

Take this letter from American poet Walt Whitman, for instance. We can probably decipher the text, as Whitman’s scrawl is fairly legible compared to countless other cursive letters, but we’ve also learned in school how to recognize the script (the letter “Q” in cursive always looked like a silly “2”, or a swan, but we get taught to recognize it – something our children won’t receive).

It’s difficult to say whether people who haven’t been taught cursive writing will be able to read letters like these. Whitman’s hand is one thing, but how about those who wrote much more sloppily in the past, or with a much steeper slant?

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“Woman Writing a Letter with her Maid”, Johannes Vermeer. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Not too long ago, I was at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto, where I completed my master’s degree. I spent a few days reading through the correspondence of General James Wolfe, the leader of the victorious British forces at the fabled Battle of the Plains of Abraham (1763) which defined the colonial future of Quebec and ultimately Canada. Wolfe’s writing was quite elegant, but I often had trouble deciphering some of his words (I’d like to illustrate my point, but the original copies of his letters are protected in the library, so I don’t have photographs).

Letters like these, and early manuscripts, are extremely important documents to study, both in a literary and historical sense. In the humanities, we’re working with written documents all the time, and being able to read as much as we can is a necessity. Even just for leisure, being able to write and read cursive is a special and worthwhile skill. It’ll be interesting to see how reading evolves in the future when most of the documents we produce will be typed.

It’s a little ironic: I almost wish I could have handwritten this post for effect.