for 10 December 2022
10 December 1830 is Emily Dickinson’s birth-date. In her honor, you might spend the day penning obscure poetry and witticisms. Or you could fall down the rabbit hole that is the search for the “real Emily”, a person born nearly 200 years ago today. Apparently, there are questions of authenticity, not as much about her poetry, as about her. But then these days all things are called into question and must prove themselves to be worthy of being named themselves.
In any case, while trying to find a photo of Emily to put up with these much-belated birthday greetings, I ran into a wall of debate. There is just one photo that meets with expert approval. It’s the one we all know, that portrait of a skinny, sickly teenager with a rigorously centered hair part, the Mona Lisa smirk and an eyebrow that is just starting to judge you.
Then I ran into this odd image of a putative Emily in her 20s, wearing old-fashioned clothes for the time period and sitting next to her friend Kate Scott Turner. Turner is undeniably herself, wearing mourning black and an expression of profound detachment. She does not care about you or anything else. The woman on the left, however, who may or may not be Dickinson, seems rather cynically merry. Which probably fits with this being Emily on a day when she’s not being photographed with her recently widowed friend, but… maybe not the Emily we know from her letters, the one who cared deeply about those she chose to admit to her limited circle of friendships. She would have done more than casually fling an arm around her friend, I think. I would expect to see mirrored pain in her expression. There is also some debate about the chin, though to my untrained eyes, it’s more the nose.
But then I found this…
Richard Sewall included this image in the original edition of his National Book Award winning biography, The Life of Emily Dickinson (Farrar, Straus & Giroux : 1974). Later editions, which comprise most of the available reading copies (like the 1998 Harvard University Press edition), do not contain this image. In the intervening decades, the authenticity of this photo was debunked.
But I would like it to be true. Here we see a beautiful woman in her full maturity. She is still amused by the world, but she is also tired. She is tolerant of our gaze but not particularly encouraging. Nor does she need an audience. She is complete in herself. And she has suffered more than physical sickness, though she remains kind and caring and gentle. I can see Emily’s poetry in these eyes, much more so than those of the cocky teen.
Still… I agree that the link between the teenager and this woman is tenuous. I doubt the teenaged chin and narrow face would change to match the older woman’s strong jaw and prominent cheekbones. But then again, that might just be lighting and the skill (or otherwise) of the photographer. And the image does match Dickinson’s own description of herself to perfection. Furthermore, the set of the lips is identical in both pictures which, when you consider all the variables of teeth and lip shape and characteristic expression, seems quite a compelling argument. But we can’t be sure who this woman is from this remove in time. And the authorities have decidedly weighed in against this photo. Though it will keep resurfacing, inspiring debate for almost fifty years now. So…
Like I said, it’s a rabbit hole. I dare you to jump in with your own opinions!
10 December is also the Roman Festival of Lux Mundi, whose statue presides over the New York City Harbor. The French still celebrate this day in her honor, as do other left-over pockets of Roman culture here and there throughout the world. St Lucy’s Day, December 13th, is a variant.
We call her Lady Liberty, but the French call her the “freedom that enlightens the world”.
Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
This poem was penned by the activist and writer, Emma Lazarus, a few years before Lady Liberty took up her commanding post in the Harbor.
In the same way that fireworks and torches cannot be seen in the light of the sun, the best intellect and the greatest beauty cannot be seen in the light of the kindness of a single heart. — Arthur Schopenhauer (in Tolstoy's Calendar of Wisdom for 12 December)
The Solar Calendar
In a final note, The Old Farmer’s Almanac, the calendrical authority I tend to use most frequently, says today is the last day for the earliest sunsets of the year. TimeandDate.com for my town has this continuing until the 15th (which is also the traditional start of the Halcyon Days). So there are ecumenical differences… In either case, by the end of the week, the sun will be setting a whole minute later than 4:11pm. The days will continue their winter shortening until the 21st, and the latest sunrise doesn’t happen until the 30th. And if you keep very careful records, the sun remains fixed, rising and setting at the same positions on the horizon, from 16 December until 27 December. But for all intents and purposes, we’ve entered the period of very little change that we name the solstice, the “sun stands still”.
What is your solstice period? If you live at the poles (unlikely), then it’s almost half the year. If you’re at the equator, you hardly have a solstice. Or maybe it’s always solstice because there is little variance in either day length or the sun’s apparent path across the sky.
Our earliest ancestors would not have known about this phenomenon, and most of the early urban centers — from whence come our earliest written records — didn’t have to deal with real winter darkness. Neanderthals, however, were masters of winter. Theirs could be called the culture of cold. One wonders how they celebrated the solstice!
©Elizabeth Anker 2022