Richard B. Sewall on the Poetic Genius of Emily Dickinson

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A Book for a Lifetime

The Life of Emily Dickinson
Richard Benson Sewall
Harvard University Press, 1994 (reprint edition)

There is a famous sketch by Henry Fuseli called “The artist moved by the grandeur of ancient ruins.” It shows a tiny mortal figure weeping beside the fragments of a colossal statue. The reader of Sewall’s life of Emily Dickinson will find himself in that mortal’s place.

This is a book to buy and keep and turn to again and again. Whenever you need to remind yourself what the English language can do, open a page at random and ED will show you. On her own confusion: “I am out with lanterns, looking for myself.” On youth: “when I was but an unsifted girl, and you so scholarly.” On Shakespearean partings: “I read them in the garret and the rafters wept.”

Sewall’s scholarship is impeccable, his writing graceful, his sympathy and critical engagement exemplary. If you don’t own any volumes of Dickinson’s poetry, this biography can serve as a “selected works” since it contains many of the poems and letters in their entirety. Don’t deny yourself the pleasure of possessing this book.

© RJO 1995–2022