Pre-Raphaelites in The City: Happy Birthday Emily Dickinson

Dinah Roe

Happy Birthday Emily Dickinson Here's to being deep, concentrated and reckless.

Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts on 10 December, 1830, only five days after Christina Rossetti. But these two poets share more than a birth month. Both poets are known as virtual recluses whose sedate daily routines concealed fierce interior lives. Neglected for much of the twentieth century by academics and literary critics, they retained a loyal readership nonetheless, and were respected among poets. See, for example, Edith Sitwell’s backhanded compliment: ‘Women’s poetry, with the expection of Sappho … Goblin Market and a few deep, concentrated but fearfully incomplete poems of Emily Dickinson, is simply awful ...’.

Clearly, a literary recovery was badly needed, and it finally came with feminist critics, who began to discover the value in Rossetti’s and Dickinson’s poetry of the inner life. In the United States, Dickinson was popularised in 1976 by William Luce’s one-woman play, The Belle of Amherst, starring Julie Harris. Her portrayal of Emily Dickinson won a Tony Award in 1977.

In 1987, Sharon Leder and Andrea Abbott’s seminal work, The Language of Exclusion: The Poetry of Emily Dickinson and Christina Rossetti, explicitly linked the work of the two poets. This trend continued in fiction with the character of Christabel La Motte in AS Byatt’s Possession (1990), who is widely believed to be a composite of Rossetti and Dickinson.

But what did these two contemporaries think of eachother’s work? Luckily, we have Rossetti’s response. Curiously, she recorded her opinion of Dickinson’s poems just one day after she turned 60 on 6 December, 1890: ‘I am feeling at 60 very much as I did at 59!’, she wrote. Dickinson did not live to see 60, having died in May 1886.  Rossetti wrote of her 1890 Poems, ‘she had (for she is dead) a wonderfully Blakean gift, but therewith a startling recklessness of poetic ways and means.’

Perhaps Dickinson’s work felt a little too close for comfort. Ruskin had once expressed similar reservations about Christina Rossetti’s own Goblin Market. Christina’s comment has often been taken to be negative, but I think it is more ambiguous. For isn’t ‘recklessness of poetic ways and means’ just another way of saying ‘Blakean’? Also, there is no clear indication (bar the carefully poised, elusive ‘but’ in this sentence) that Christina entirely disapproved of such ‘recklessness’.

As both poets are famous poets of winter, let’s celebrate Dickinson with the following poem about the season. Along with the poem’s frosty delights, look out for the biting humour, another Rossettian feature:

Winter is good – his Hoar Delights
Italic flavor yield –
To Intellects inebriate
With Summer, or the World –

Generic as a Quarry
And hearty – as a Rose –
Invited with Asperity
But welcome when he goes.



  1. One of my favorite Dickinson poems is “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass, ” becuse of the last line—“zero at the Bone”—describing the grasshoppper’s waist. Such economy of words! Such precise description ! Such odd capitalizations!

    Mrs. Roe responded at 10:40pm on 12/11/2011

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Pre-Raphaelites in the City

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This blog explores the thriving Victorian cities which inspired the Pre-Raphaelites, and were shaped by them in turn. While the Pre-Raphaelites produced poetry and art praising the natural world, most were born and raised in urban environments, and their work retained a cosmopolitan sensibility. Although this blog will sometimes take excursions into the countryside, its focus will remain on city life. If you want more information on images or sources, please get in touch.