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Emily Dickinson's Love Affair With The 'Dailiness' Of Everyday Life


Sometimes it’s the smallest details that reveal the most. Emily Dickinson knew that. More than many other poets, she distilled, zeroed in and elevated the minute. 

She noticed “a certain Slant of light,” heard a fly’s “Blue - uncertain - stumbling Buzz,” and even saw “Dots on a Disc of Snow.”

After several years writing my new book, I can’t get the small, random, seemingly inconsequential details about Dickinson out of my head.

As I wrote, I kept a file I called “Dailiness.” It became a hodgepodge of everything from what Emily Dickinson ate to the doodles she drew.

Here’s a sampling of entries.

Dickinson loved to walk at night and gather wildflowers. Once she got up at 4 a.m. to pick currants for the family’s favorite wine.

She was good at trapping mice. The family’s cat was also an excellent mouser. The poet called him the Minutehand.

Emily loved ice cream and her mother’s fried donuts. She was especially fond of what she called “julep foods” — dishes for sipping, like cooked peaches and fricasseed beans in cream.

Dickinson was 5 feet, 6 inches from head to heel, and described herself as having sherry-colored eyes and hair bold as a chestnut burr.

Emily Dickinson could be irritable, especially when she didn’t have enough solitude and slammed doors.

She cared about her appearance, and was embarrassed when visitors caught her in a soiled and worn house-dress, wearing a dirty apron and her hair a mess.

Dickinson made fun of her sister’s snoring, polished apples before giving them to her brother, and loved sitting on high, gray rocks in the woods around Amherst.

What do all these small details add up to?

Dickinson once wrote, “Should you ask what happened here, I should say nothing perceptible. Sweet latent events – too shy to confide.”

Polished apples, mice, a dirty apron, chestnut burr — “sweet latent events,” to be sure — and images of the everyday spun into poetry that takes your breath away.

Martha Ackmann lives in Leverett, Massachusetts. Her new book, "These Fevered Days: Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson," will be published in late February.

Martha Ackmann is a journalist and author who writes about women who have changed America. Her essays and columns have appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and The New York Times.
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