The Mirror World of Emily Dickinson and Carlo
Updated: Mar 19
Like Alice's adventures through the looking-glass, Emily Dickinson's life is full of contradictions and illusions.
I originally intended to write about literary friendships of the two-legged variety, but I became intrigued by a different kind of literary encourager. And Emily's special companion was an especially interesting and endearing one.
I knew very little about Emily Dickinson before this week--just the usual: a mysterious, reclusive poet with only one fully authenticated photograph; a writer in white; a woman who gathered poems like light through a window and kept them in a secret cache in her isolated room.
These things are true as far as they go, but the real story is more complex and fascinating, revealing a mirror life of mystery, contrasted with one of everyday adventure.
1. One Side of the Mirror
Daguerreotype courtesy of Amherst College Archives and Special Collections
This is the one absolutely true image of Emily Dickinson, taken at about the age of 16 or 17, ca. 1847. Photography in those days was unusual and a little magical. It was a serious occasion to have a photograph taken due to the expense. I love to see this reflected in Emily's look of wonder and vulnerability, mixed with a bit of trepidation. Many people looked grim and stiff in their pictures; the camera rarely caught their real personalities. Emily, in contrast, looks fully alive, with an expression of curiosity, wonder and that hint of ethereal unease. The image fits well with the perception of her as a shy, reclusive poet.
1a. Through the Looking-Glass
This recently discovered image, after extensive research, is thought to be the second image of Emily Dickinson that is known. It shows her as a young woman, looking confident, relaxed, even serene (not an easy thing to do when wearing restrictive clothing and waiting for the image to be captured.)
Possibly Emily Dickinson with her friend, Kate Scott Turner, ca. 1859.
It is the first in a series of interesting complexities about the "real" Emily Dickinson.
2. Another Side of the Mirror
And yet, it is true that Emily was haunted by questions about life and death, and her own place in the world. More social and outgoing as a young girl, she attended school away from home (suffering often, though, from homesickness). Gradually, fears about fitting in with the expected patterns of life in her day, and her own inner anxiety, caused her to withdraw. She wrote to her brother, Austin:
I wish we were children now. I wish we were always children. How to grow up I do not know.
Her father is sometimes portrayed as the villain in the piece, mostly absent, but controlling when at home. Yet, he did a surprising thing: he gave the perfect gift at the perfect time to Emily.
2a. Through the Looking-Glass
Into Emily's life romped a special dog, the gift from her father. Emily was small in stature, becoming more and more anxious and perhaps depressed. It seems a tiny lapdog would have been just the thing to bring comfort. Perhaps because of his own anxiety and fear of the world, her father's insightful present opened a world of companionship, security and even adventure for his daughter. He gave her a Newfoundland puppy.
Emily wrote to friend Thomas Higginson:
You ask of my companions. Hills, sir, and the Sundown, and a dog as large as myself that my father bought me...
She named him Carlo, after the dog in Jane Eyre. He became her special companion and friend; he was always by her side, whether calling on friends in the neighborhood or taking long walks in the woods surrounding her home. Carlo was her comforter in her darkest times.
Late at night, as she wrote her poems, Carlo's concerned face, with a Newfoundland's soulful eyes, kept her company.
3. The Creative Side of the Mirror
After a particularly troubled time in her life, Emily emerged with a strong sense of herself as a poet. She entered into a a white-hot period of creativity, writing 366 poems in 1861. Although a few were published during her lifetime, she kept most of the poems in her room with herself and Carlo.
3b. Through the Looking-Glass
Another side of Emily Dickinson's creativity surprised me: she was an accomplished baker, making breads and desserts that others raved about. She did most of the baking for her family, and often sent baked goods to her friends with a bit of poetry tucked alongside it. I would have loved to be one of those friends!
In fact, baking seemed to encourage her creativity--some of her best-known poems now were originally written on the backs of recipes.
Emily also had a playful side and a lively sense of humor. The Emily Dickinson Museum shares about her childhood friend, Mac Jenkins, who remembers that Emily "lowered a basket filled with gingerbread out of her window for him and the other kids to eat."
She wrote a poem about a spider visiting her while in the privy, and this poem, The Way Hope Builds his House, was written on an envelope she unfolded to have the shape of a home:
From the Amherst College Archives and Special Collections
With Carlo, she could always feel comfortable with any mood she experienced. She wrote in a letter:
[Dogs] are better than human beings, because they know but do not tell.
When Carlo died in 1866, she was devastated. She wrote in a poem:
Time is a Test of Trouble -
But not a Remedy -
If such it prove, it proves too
There was no Malady -
From reading about Emily Dickinson and Carlo, one image especially endures in my mind:
After an evening spent at her brother's house next door, a time filled with singing and the telling of stories, Emily slips away out the door. Carlo is there waiting for her, and the two step together over the snow-covered ground. Emily holds a lantern high against the night. The two are on their way home.
I came across this book as I was learning more about Emily Dickinson and Carlo. The illustrations look gorgeous; I'm looking forward to buying a copy: