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Emily Dickinson's "One Sister have I in our house"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Emily Dickinson

Introduction and Text of "One Sister have I in our house"

Susan Gilbert Dickinson became Emily Dickinson's sister-in-law, but she also served Emily's poetic talent by advising Emily about books to read and ideas to consider. Susan thus played an important rôle in Emily's pursuit of empirical knowledge. Susan had traveled extensively and had lived outside of Emily's New England bubble; thus she was able to help Emily broaden her horizons regarding worldly knowledge.

While the Austin Dickinson home, the "Evergreens," became the locus of tragedy, and likely Emily did not know the extent to which her adoptive sister might have shared in the blame for some of that discord, Emily remained beholden to Susan for the many useful and important aspects of art that Susan brought in to Emily's life. Thus, the following poem is Emily's tribute to her second sister who lived "a hedge away."

One Sister have I in our house

One Sister have I in our house,
And one, a hedge away.
There's only one recorded,
But both belong to me.

One came the road that I came —
And wore my last year's gown —
The other, as a bird her nest,
Builded our hearts among.

She did not sing as we did —
It was a different tune —
Herself to her a music
As Bumble bee of June.

Today is far from Childhood —
But up and down the hills
I held her hand the tighter —
Which shortened all the miles —

And still her hum
The years among,

Deceives the Butterfly;
Still in her Eye
The Violets lie
Mouldered this many May.

I spilt the dew —
But took the morn —
I chose this single star
From out the wide night's numbers —
Sue — forevermore!

Reading of "One Sister have I in our house"

Lavinia Dickinson

Susan Dickinson

Commentary

Emily Dickinson's "One Sister have I in our house" is a tribute to her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert Dickinson, who married Emily's brother, Austin

First Stanza: Two Sisters

One Sister have I in our house,
And one, a hedge away.
There's only one recorded,
But both belong to me.

The speaker begins by stating colorfully that she has two sisters: one lives in the same building as the speaker, while the other one reside in a nearby edifice that is "a hedge away." She then states that one sister is legally hers having been "recorded" as such, but she recognizes them both as her siblings.

Dickinson in this poem is once again employing her riddle-like style, but she never names her legal sister with whom she resides, while in the final line, she does reveal the name of the sister who lives nearby: "Sue — forevermore!"

"Sue" is Susan Gilbert whom Dickinson had known for many years, and who married Austin Dickinson, Emily's only brother. Emily adored her brother and she then came to love her sister-in-law and accepted her as a sister, as this poem portrays the tribute to Sue Gilbert.

Second Stanza: Contrasting Sisters

One came the road that I came —
And wore my last year's gown —
The other, as a bird her nest,
Builded our hearts among.

Continuing to contrast the differences that exist between the two "sisters" whom the speaker is claiming, the speaker reveals that she is a bit older than her natural-birth sister by saying that that sister was able to fit into the garments that the speaker had outgrown, "last year's gown." And the natural, legal sister has traveled the same "road" that the speaker has traveled.

The adopted sister came into their lives like a bird that builds its nest among the leaves. But this sister claimed their hearts, and thus the speaker can now feel comfortable calling her sister.

Third Stanza: Seeing New Englandly

She did not sing as we did —
It was a different tune —
Herself to her a music
As Bumble bee of June.

The new sister also has a somewhat different style of viewing life as well as a different way of speaking from the Dickinson's. Emily once said "I see—New Englandly—." And she, of course, spoke New Englandly.

While Susan Gilbert was born in Massachusetts, she was raised from age 5 in New York, thus she would not have acquired the same Massachusetts (New England) accent that the Dickinson's would have employed.

Nevertheless, the speaker has enjoyed the speaking, singing of the newly added sister, as she compares that new sister's accent to the June bumble bee. That sound at first sings the mind but becomes a welcome sound because it means that summer is here.

Fourth Stanza: A Pleasant Trek

Today is far from Childhood —
But up and down the hills
I held her hand the tighter —
Which shortened all the miles —

The speaker now reveals that she is reporting from a period of time that has moved them all way beyond "Childhood." And the speaker thus reports that having trekked through the landscape with her new sister and "held her hand" even tighter as the years have flown by has made the speaker's life more pleasant.

The miles of travel through life can long and tedious, but having a pleasant companion can make those miles seem less long and tedious. The new sister has done that for the speaker, and thus this tribute to that sister.

Fifth Stanza: Retaining an Eye for Beauty

And still her hum
The years among,
Deceives the Butterfly;
Still in her Eye
The Violets lie
Mouldered this many May.

The speaker continues to remark about the sister's speaking. That sister has the ability to fit in to the New England way of things remarkably well. She is so well suited to the New England way that the natives may even think she grew up a New England resident.

The speaker then reports that although many months of May have come and gone, the sister's eye for detecting the natural beauty in flowers or little violet blooms remains in tact; the "Violet" thus becomes a symbol for all of nature in these lines.

Sixth Stanza: Achieving Harmony and Balance

I spilt the dew —
But took the morn —
I chose this single star
From out the wide night's numbers —
Sue — forevermore!

The speaker finally reports that she became aware of her great admiration for her adoptive sister as morning seemed to overtake her in thought that was as gentle and wet as the "dew." These thoughts that watered her growing plant of musing caused the speaker to pick out this remarkable friend who has served the speaker's life like a sister.

The speaker calls that new sister a "star" for the light of knowledge the sister has provided the speaker. The appreciative speaker vows to continue to respect and honor that relationship that has grown between the two writers.

Susan Dickinson Also a Writer

Susan Gilbert Dickinson was also a writer and had advised Emily on a wide variety of topics important to poets. Emily once quipped to Susan, "With the exception of Shakespeare, you have told me of more knowledge than any one living."

Emily also called such praise strange, yet poets know that knowledge is a priceless gift, and they understand that honoring the giver of such gifts is necessary for a balanced life. Dickinson was completely aware of the necessity of striving for and achieving harmony in her life, and she took every precaution to arrive safely on the shores and harmony and balance.

Emily Dickinson

Life Sketch of Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson remains one of the most fascinating and widely researched poets in America. Much speculation abounds regarding some of the most known facts about her. For example, after the age of seventeen, she remained fairly cloistered in her father's home, rarely moving from the house beyond the front gate. Yet she produced some of the wisest, deepest poetry ever created anywhere at any time.

Regardless of Emily's personal reasons for living nun-like, readers have found much to admire, enjoy, and appreciate about her poems. Though they often baffle upon first encounter, they reward readers mightily who stay with each poem and dig out the nuggets of golden wisdom.

New England Family

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born December 10, 1830, in Amherst, MA, to Edward Dickinson and Emily Norcross Dickinson. Emily was the second child of three: Austin, her older brother who was born April 16, 1829, and Lavinia, her younger sister, born February 28, 1833. Emily died on May 15, 1886.

Emily's New England heritage was strong and included her paternal grandfather, Samuel Dickinson, who was one of the founders of Amherst College. Emily's father was a lawyer and also was elected to and served one term in the state legislature (1837-1839); later between 1852 and 1855, he served one term in the U.S. House of Representative as a representative of Massachusetts.

Education

Emily attended the primary grades in a one room school until being sent to Amherst Academy, which became Amherst College. The school took pride in offering college level course in the sciences from astronomy to zoology. Emily enjoyed school, and her poems testify to the skill with which she mastered her academic lessons.

After her seven year stint at Amherst Academy, Emily then entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in the fall of 1847. Emily remained at the seminary for only one year. Much speculation has been offered regarding Emily's early departure from formal education, from the atmosphere of religiosity of the school to the simple fact that the seminary offered nothing new for the sharp minded Emily to learn. She seemed quite content to leave in order to stay home. Likely her reclusiveness was beginning, and she felt the need to control her own learning and schedule her own life activities.

As a stay-at-home daughter in 19th century New England, Emily was expected to take on her share of domestic duties, including housework, likely to help prepare said daughters for handling their own homes after marriage. Possibly, Emily was convinced that her life would not be the traditional one of wife, mother, and householder; she has even stated as much: God keep me from what they call households.

Reclusiveness and Religion

In this householder-in-training position, Emily especially disdained the role a host to the many guests that her father's community service required of his family. She found such entertaining mind-boggling, and all that time spent with others meant less time for her own creative efforts. By this time in her life, Emily was discovering the joy of soul-discovery through her art.

Although many have speculated that her dismissal of the current religious metaphor landed her in the atheist camp, Emily's poems testify to a deep spiritual awareness that far exceeds the religious rhetoric of the period. In fact, Emily was likely discovering that her intuition about all things spiritual demonstrated an intellect that far exceeded any of her family's and compatriots' intelligence. Her focus became her poetry—her main interest in life.

Emily's reclusiveness extended to her decision that she could keep the sabbath by staying home instead of attending church services. Her wonderful explication of the decision appears in her poem, "Some keep the Sabbath going to Church":

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church —
I keep it, staying at Home —
With a Bobolink for a Chorister —
And an Orchard, for a Dome —

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice —
I just wear my Wings —
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton — sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman —
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last —
I'm going, all along.

Publication

Very few of Emily's poems appeared in print during her lifetime. And it was only after her death the her sister Vinnie discovered the bundles of poems, called fascicles, in Emily's room. A total of 1775 individual poems have made their way to publication. The first publicans of her works to appear, gathered and edited by Mabel Loomis Todd, a supposed paramour of Emily's brother, and the editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson had been altered to the point of changing the meanings of her poems. The regularization of her technical achievements with grammar and punctuation obliterated the high achievement that the poet had so creatively accomplished.

Readers can thank Thomas H. Johnson, who in the mid 1950s went to work at restoring Emily's poems to their, at least near, original. His doing so restored her many dashes, spacings, and other grammar/mechanical features that earlier editors had "corrected" for the poet—corrections that ultimately resulted in obliteration of the poetic achievement reached by Emily's mystically brilliant talent.

The text I use for commentaries

The text I use for commentaries

Questions & Answers

Question: Do you think the relationship between the two women could have been more than best friends?

Answer: Emily Dickinson and Susan Gilbert Dickinson were sisters-in-law.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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