What Dickinson’s double language reveals about her sexual life

Dickinson’s poetry is far more than an esoteric work highly encoded by metaphors, symbols, and parables. It is double-sensed poetry written in a true secret language. She construes her poems in little word works of art with ambiguous words and quotations, with lyric situations embodying analogons, while an inner poem includes a veiled happening or a hidden sense. As each of these two poems follows its individual creative sequence, two completely different works running side by side are being designed.

From these two, the visible external work derives its conventional poetic themes. It is this aspect of her work that has provided Dickinson so much fame. Below it, however, is hidden her genius, her secret inner work. Its truths were too glaring for them to be bared in her time. She veiled the inner work so skillfully that its existence was neither recognized nor even conjectured. In it she tells of a great love and its sexual experience, and she does so openly and totally unaffectedly within the confines of her secret language. While the theme of the outer poem may be an aphorism to wisdom, a love poem, a sensual metaphor, a litany of dying and death, or even a metaphysical murmuring of the other world and of immortality, the inner poem is always telling of her own self and belongs to a phase of her love life that can be determined psychologically and chronologically. The story of her life which she tells, first in letters and then in poems, is sketched hereafter.

What legend and biography propagate as truth is not what Emily Dickinson narrates about herself in her double-sensed poetry. There is no mention of hopeless love for an elderly priest in faraway Philadelphia who would not even have been aware of her affection. There is no mention of a sad, nun-like life in the puritanical environment of a monastically parental house. Emily’s introduction into the mystery of love came suddenly and by surprise. She was first put off with declarations of love and promises by her seducer, then halfway forsaken for a longer period of time. He was a well-off owner of a newspaper, some years her senior, living in a neighboring town, and standing at the beginning of his professional career. His name was Samuel Bowles. He became a distinguished and politically influential man. He was married. However, this dilemma did not bother him long. Cunningly, he started befriending her brother and father in such a way that he would occasionally be welcomed as an overnight guest in the Dickinson house.

Emily submitted to being his “White Lady” in Amherst. This relationship lasted for two decades, though with repeated interruptions. Two entanglements almost broke it up. One was a short love affair with another woman, Kate Scott Anthon, with whom she tried to escape from the claws of her “man of the world lover.” He reacted brutally and abused her in a tripartite love affair. The other was the appearance of another “White Lady,” Maria Whitney, who then rose to occupy first place in the affections of her mighty master.

All her life, love afforded her more anguish and suffering than joy and peace. She appears to have been bonded woman to her lover in fear as well as in love. There are poems and documents in which she makes no secret of her feelings as his prisoner. Nevertheless, she was not completely deprived of quiet self-fulfillment.

Emily Dickinson was born a sexually inverted female; over and over she says through her secret language that she considers her homosexuality congenital. Her conflict with God arises from this fact. This great endowment—others may call it a taint—demonstrably conditioned her for the extraordinary poetic gift which burst forth from her in the middle of her life. To trigger it, though, a great emotional disturbance, with its concomitant endocrine excitement, was needed. The poems make it abundantly clear that Kate Scott Anthon was the beloved person. Kate also must have been congenitally homosexual; Emily once hints at hermaphrodites in her. The recognition between the two women was immediate and fatal. It bloomed at first into a period of uranium love, at least for Emily. But Kate was an experienced and persistent seducer. Probably within months Emily submitted. After that the love union continued for about two years. Trysts were held in remarkable places and at remarkable times, all more or less identified in the poems. On at least one occasion erotic furor seems to have taken place in an orgy of indulgence. This fact is celebrated by an entire group of poems. Emily went not through hells of despair and anguish alone, but also through beatitudes of highest, most consummate bliss.

Emily bloomed into a poet of eroticism. Her Sapphic poems dwarf in frankness anything Sappho probably ever wrote. In the 440 now copy-free poems there are over 50 celebrating in great detail the lesbian acts committed, singly and reciprocally. At least 50 more of this group dwell on the personal experience between the two women in a more generalized way. A great dissembler, Emily uses simile, symbol and parable, indeed all the tricks in the book, to disguise her meanings. (No one can know as well as I how brilliantly she succeeded.) Many of the best poems are parables, that is to say: double poems; some are even triple. Her mastery of the parable is unequalled even by the gospel. Once they become known, some of them will become the marvels in all literature.

In the 300 plus of translations selected for my first volume the symbols for the female landscape run into the dozens. Legs, lap and hairdo, mons veneris form one group: vulva, labiae and vagina another, but most lavishly furnished appear clitoris and pollutiones feminae. Kate’s proficiency as lesbian lover and teacher are eulogized and celebrated with a great many delightful nicknames. “Master” was born during instruction in the refinements of submission. Both cunnilingus and manustupration are wittily, cleverly described in a great number of metaphors and symbols, and indeed in entire poems. In her eroticism Emily is of utmost frankness—indecent and without shame, yes! But again only in “our manner of the phrase.” She simply does not consider herself as cosigning party to the conventional code of morals. She is, perhaps, the first and only woman not elusive in anything. But she is never depraved, nor even really obscene. The God walks in her Eros, wittily, beautifully, delectably imaginative, and blissfully happy—but not the pig.

The Dickinson poems, then, are like icebergs: a small glittering part travelling on the surface and presenting a jeweled face to the world, while the real mass of her message most always steers the vessel with its great bulk below surface. Very many of her most famous, most beautiful ones—it will surprise a public once to the point of incredibility—revel in descriptions of the lesbian act. While the apogee of her orbit achieves loftiest uranian heights, the perigee goes through psychopathia sexualis. There can be no doubt about that. Congenital sexual inversion however, must not necessarily be considered a pathia. Nor was it a sickness of the soul with her, but rather a normalized estate. It is to be noted well especially that, while the first of her glorifications of the sexual act appear in 1858 already (according to Prof. Johnson’s chronology), and are most numerous throughout her great, prolonged psychosis (which may be considered as surmounted by 1865), they continue almost to her deathbed—one of the finest having been written in 1883. Eros just missed becoming a philosophy, metaphysic, yes religion to her; her good common sense triumphed at length in that too.

All existing theories about love for men must go by the board. Those about Samuel Bowles and Judge Lord explain themselves through my facts. Almost all the “established” biographical facts about her, appear in new light now, and must be re-examined. The true significance of the early correspondence with Col. Higginson emerges only now, and it is surprising. Even more astonishing is that the publication of two poems in the Springfield Republican (III.30,’64; II.14,’66) and one in the Round Table (III.12,’64)) must now be seen as well-considered acts of Emily, producing for her the highly dramatic consequences in the life of Kate, even if perhaps in a direction not expected or desired.

The facts I herewith disclose are supported by incontrovertible, overwhelming evidence. They open up the personality and the poems of Emily Dickinson at every turn met. They reduce the great body of what seemed till now bizarreries of an overly fertile imagination, to stark, poignant facts of reality. They bare the incidents of a love—the greatest that so far has come out of America—probably one of the very greatest in all literature. They tell the story of this love. They give understanding to a personality of first magnitude, and they uncover the hidden content of a human document of immense, of incalculable value. 1

[No date of writing. It must however have been between 1959 and 1960, the time when Hans corresponded with various publishers (Harvard, Little Brown, Harper)]

1 Hans refers to the early speculations (see, for example, George Frisbie Whicher’s This Was a Poet: A Critical Biography of Emily Dickinson, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1938) that Charles Wadsworth was her secret lover.