South light of winters would have lain on Emily Dickinson’s small sleigh bed. Her bed offered itself to both low south and late west light. There were windows on each of those walls of her corner bedroom. Her small writing table stood angled between those two windows. I have not thought about Dickinson and light. They do not seem affiliated. I have wondered about the values of her windows. They were portals to spy on arrivals, allowing her moments to decide whether to remain hidden or to descend to conversation. Dickinson could ‘play’ from the windows, dropping sweets and surreptitious notes.
When I think about her windows, it is her mirror that comes to mind. A small mirror hung above her dresser, and I wonder whether she was too tightly framed by it. I doubt a tiny mirror could have held Emily Dickinson’s ecstatic vision. Seated at her writing table, however, she could have looked to the windows, eyes flitting to give a quick glance to south and west, to catch her own face in quarter profile in each window. In her windows, Dickinson could have seen herself reflected against the outside world. She could see herself in the world without entering it, her face poised against leaves and the town, providing a cautiously distant perspective, a sense of self kept at reflective remove from wearying conflicts.
Below her mirror, Dickinson had hung pictures of George Eliot and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She could capture her face in the mirror, then look down to her mentors, and up again, holding the shapes of their strongly outlined faces against her own in the mirror. Her hands could be on the chest below the mirror. She could reach down to the bottom drawer, where she had collected her own poetry, miscellaneous sheets as well as sheaves bound by string.
There was a large mirror over the fireplace in the Dickinson front parlour. On my tour of the house there were several other people, including teenage girls who seemed to know Dickinson quite well. When we were in the parlour, a lovely young woman, who was perhaps 16, asked the tour guide whether Dickinson had cared about her looks and how other people saw her. The guide could have told us about Dickinson’s tiny mirror, her reflective windows, and how she gazed at the pictures of Browning and Eliot, but these were not part of her answer for the young woman. After the guide’s answer, the young woman turned toward the parlour mirror. She looked intently at her own face. Here she was. Her gaze was self-reflective, but the strong look connected to Emily, to questions of self and place in the world, and to wariness at the questions of the world’s gaze. The young woman looked in the mirror as if looking through Emily’s windows to find the poet.
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For RT, who shared her observations and put Emily Dickinson on our itinerary.