• Lisa Colburn

Visiting Emily Dickinson's House

I’ve been rooting around in my workshop notebooks for the past few months looking for material I may want to develop (a practice I highly recommend!). Since April is National Poetry Month, I thought I would share this piece I wrote in 2012 about visiting the Emily Dickinson Museum which, the website informs me, is currently closed for renovations. The prompt I had given was to write about a haunted house.



Emily Dickinson’s house, called the Homestead, perches halfway up a long, gentle hill in Amherst, Massachusetts. This is not a ghost story. I didn’t see Emily, tiny and birdlike in her white gown. I didn’t see her glossy dark hair pulled back in a severe bun, didn’t see her dark, expressive eyes searching mine. But Emily’s spirit was there in the house nonetheless.


Nowadays the Homestead is a museum. Two stories of creamy yellow brick, it sits back from the leafy street, an island in a sea of green lawn and gardens. I visited in April, too cold for any flowers to begin their journey from the chilled and dormant earth.


To enter the house, you go through the back door and find yourself in the gift shop, where you can buy almost anything—bookmarks, mugs, t-shirts, canvas totes, bumper stickers, notecards, calendars—with an Emily Dickinson quote on it. And her poetry, of course, plus other books about the family.


The first floor of the Homestead held minimal interest for me. As the docent, a white-haired woman immaculate in a sharp red jacket, took us through the front parlor, back parlor, and dining room—none of which were furnished with many original belongings—I listened politely. Emily was not there, even though I saw her picture on the mantel. But as we climbed the wide staircase, with its smooth mahogany banister worn to a satiny finish by more than a century of hands, including hers, the house seemed to come alive. On the upstairs landing stood a headless dummy wearing Emily’s iconic white house dress.


Emily’s bedroom is at the top of the stairs on the right. It is a spacious, light-filled corner room that sits at the level of the tree canopy. It is a room that whispers of visions and dreams and possibilities. As you enter the room, with its floral papered walls, Emily’s bed is on the left, near the windows that face the road. It is a twin bed, with a plump mattress and featherbed and a simple cream bedspread. In the far corner of the room between two windows stands a small writing desk with stick-thin legs, pen and paper at the ready, an oil lamp perched on the corner.



Lying in bed with the morning sun streaming in, hearing the servants below making breakfast and stoking the fires, Emily would have been able to observe who was coming and going on the road. Looking straight out beyond the foot of her bed, she would have seen her brother Austin’s household at the Evergreens coming to life. Emily’s day would have been spent working alongside the two women servants making bread, tending the gardens, and washing the laundry in great steaming tubs.


Then, in the late afternoon and into the night, she would have written her poems, perfect pearls from the oyster of her mind. She would have sat at the little desk gazing out, but her vision would have been elsewhere entirely, in distant galaxies. Transported by beauty, she would have shone there in the window, a beacon of purity and power, a passionate lover of language and life.


Though she died in 1886, she is still with us, shining for all to see in her poems. And, for this visitor at least, something of her spirit also lingers in the room where she created them, in a creamy yellow brick house on Main Street in Amherst, Massachusetts.


 

To read the “10 Best” Emily Dickinson poems (how does one choose?), go to this article on the Publishers Weekly website. In these trying times, I love “'Hope' is the thing with feathers,” which begins this way:


“Hope” is the thing with feathers -

That perches in the soul -

And sings the tune without the words -

And never stops - at all -



Image credits: The exterior photo of the Homestead was taken by Norman Eggert and appears on the Harvard Magazine website. The interior photo appears on the Amherst College website, photographer unknown.

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