I'm reading a wonderful book, The Passion of Emily Dickinson, by Judith Farr (Professor of English at Georgetown, now emerita). Her insightful and well-researched take on Dickinson makes more sense to me than some other interpretations I've come across. My perception of Emily has been deepening considerably as I read more about her and she has entered my imagination. As well, the major dramatis personae in her circumscribed circle are starting to be no longer merely names. They are coming to life for me, like darkroom photographs emerging from chemical baths. I'm getting a sense of their personalities, of their complicated interconnections and interactions, and especially their effects on Emily.
Right now I'm in the midst of a section of Farr's book that discusses Emily's decision by her early thirties to clad herself in white, and around this time, her conscious, gradual withdrawal from general society - a decision, ultimately, to literally not show her face. (For example, she stayed upstairs when visitors, including those of her former close acquaintance, came to call; she loved children and would lower a basket laden with her homebaked cookies, from her window.)
I hadn't given much thought to her white dress before. If anything I had dismissed it as an eccentricity and de-emphasized it as I considered her. I associated it with something immature and girlish that I found vaguely trivial, offputting, and that I couldn't relate to. But reading Farr, it's like a light being turned on. I have a sense now of Emily's consciously donning her garb as an expression of her complex, impassioned, integrated iconography.
The author discusses the idea of Emily's conscious decision to become a kind of reclusive artist-nun, a bride (though not Miss Havisham-like) of a lover - God, but not (as with a Catholic nun) only God, but also an earthly lover - whose face she is not destined to see (or to experience again), in this realm. The theme was prevalent in Victorian poetry and painting, such as Tennyson's poem St. Agnes' Eve, and Pre-Raphaelite paintings that combined feminine images of purity with romantic eroticism. The author presents compelling evidence that Emily Dickinson was aware of this contemporaneous strain of English Victorian thought, and argues compellingly on their influence on Emily. To make a long story short, women in white, carrying lilies, were a powerful subject for Pre-Raphaelites and other English Victorians, and Emily Dickinson, in America, found affinity in these themes and made them her own.
As I muse about all this, I'm thinking of Emily Dickinson as not only a poet and great letter writer (she often merged and blurred the forms - but why, after all, should an artist be required to be a strict categorizer?) - I'm adding another dimension to my conception of her - that, in modern parlance - of performance artist. Her white wardrobe and resolutely reclusive way became another way by which to express her tightly and authentically integrated sense of self (hedgehog she, no fox).
I think of the image of Emily Dickinson, wearing white and quite literally averting her face from everyone but her most intimate inner circle of relatives and friends and contrast it with a mental image (courtesy of Colm Toibin's essay) of Marina Abramović, in her current exhibition at MOMA. Dressed in a long flowing scarlet gown, for the duration of the show (through the end of May) she sits all day long at a table and regards the face of each person who elects to sit before her. Abramović exposes her own face to be viewed by all and sundry, requesting (as communicated by museum guards) only a space of about ten seconds to, I suppose, reboot herself on some level, before lifting her head and looking into another face.
Emily Dickinson: white dress, and she liked to carry lilies - not white lilies though, as one might suppose, but red-orange ones - according to Farr, color associated with passion & suffering. Goes deeply private, reclusive, hides her face.
Marina Abramović: scarlet dress (passion & suffering). Does she carry flowers, ever? I don't know. Goes deeply public, out there, shows her face...