Saturday, December 10, 2011

Happy 181st Birthday, Emily Dickinson


Emily Dickinson has been on my radar most of this year.  Since I moved to the English department in March, I have seen the poster below every day.


Then Park Joo-Young, one of the Korean professors in the English department, came back from her sabbatical.  She wrote her dissertation about Emily Dickinson, so we talked a lot about her one day at lunch.  Joo-Young's got a complete Emily shelf in her office.  Everytime I see it, I sigh with that weird emotion lodged between bliss and jealousy.

After that, I was reading about Noah Webster for the History of the English Language class I'm teaching.  Sadly, the first edition of his dictionary wasn't a big seller, and he had to mortgage his house.  He finished the second edition right before he died in 1843.   This edition was also not a hit, but Edward Dickinson of Amherst, Massachusetts bought a copy in 1844 for his home library, and guess who carried it around for years and years and read it "...as a priest [reads] his breviary -- over and over, page by page, with utter absorption"?  Teenaged Emily!  I love it that she, a pubescent little pipsqueak, was infinitely smarter and cooler than the fusty old guys who told Webster that his lexicon was too radical or that he was mad.  "Vulgar" (as in common) was another epithet they liked to throw at him.

The Webster/Dickinson connection made me notice that Emily's birthday was about to roll around again.   Before you gasp and say, "You really are a lit geek, aren't you?"  I must hasten to say that it's not that difficult  to keep Emily's birth date in my head because it's only one day off from mine.

 When I was in high school, I adored Emily Dickinson's poetry so much that I would lie and tell people that my birthday was December 10, rather than the following day.  I was born fairly early (a little after 5 am) on the 11th, so I bristled at the unfairness of missing sharing a birthday with Emily by only a few hours.  Things seem to have worked out finally, thanks to living overseas and the 14/15-hour time difference:  Friends and family call me on the 11th to say happy birthday and it's still the 10th there!  Lame?  Yes, but I intend to enjoy it as long as possible.

Anyway, I wanted to do something to remember Emily's birthday this year.  My friend and co-worker, Mike was working hard on his songwriting and we were talking about verses, image progression and bridges and the like and I began to imagine that I could write a song, too.  Well, I can't.  It's harder than it looks.  I barely missed the boat for December 10, but as far as meter and talent go, that frigate is way out to sea and I'm just stumbling around on the dock looking for an oar.  Happy Birthday anyway, Emily! 

5 comments:

Unruly Reader said...

Happy birthday! -- to you and to Emily Dickinson. (Mostly to you. I always have wanted to like her poetry more than I actually do.)

Bybee said...

Unruly,
I restrained myself from mentioning that most of her poems can be sung to "The Yellow Rose of Texas".

Carrie#K said...

Happy Birthday, you and Emily!

Oh noes. It's true.

Care said...

Happy Belated Birthday!

Susan said...

Happy late birthday to you and Emily! I loved this post, Bybee. Love that you spent most of your teen years carrying around Dickinson's poetry, and she spent her teen years carrying around the new dictionary. Much cooler than me, I spent my life trying to find someone other than Cher to share my birthday with (May 20).