Emily Dickinson’s Letter to the World that Never Wrote to Her – Analysis of Poem No. 441
This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me –
The Simple News that Nature told –
With tender Majesty
Her Message is committed
To Hands I cannot see –
For love of Her – Sweet – countrymen –
Judge tenderly – of Me
- Emily Dickinson, Poem No. 441
I smile when you suggest that I delay “to publish”, that being foreign to my thought as firmament to fin.
If fame belonged to me, I could not escape her; if she did not, the longest day would pass me on the chase
– Emily Dickinson’s letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, June 7/8, 1862
At first glance, this poem almost looks a bit like a suicide note. However, this is highly unlikely. Emily Dickinson did not write narrative poetry; and although she was eccentric, there is little evidence she was ever depressed to the point of being suicidal. If anything, assuming this poem is at all a psychological portrait, it is an illustration of what it is like to be isolated and lonely.
Emily Dickinson received very few visitors during the years she was isolated in her home. Any contact she had with the outside world was almost exclusively conducted via mail. Even so, these relationships were often one sided. Dickinson would continually write, but would not necessarily receive a response – or the response was far from charitable.
Dickinson’s correspondence with Thomas Wentworth Higginson would have fallen into the latter category. For decades, Higginson was Dickinson’s artistic adviser, as well as her long distance friend. Emily had first written to him in 1862, asking for advice about her poetry. However, Higginson was not always complimentary, or for that matter particularly supportive, of Dickinson’s poetic efforts. He honestly thought she was an inexperienced poet, and used that as the explanation for her highly stylized verses. What he didn’t know was that she had already written more than 300 poems. Higginson suggested that Dickinson wait before attempting to publish and made numerous attempts to change her style. It is not surprising that he never succeeded.
There is no doubt Dickinson must have felt at least a little sting from this kind of criticism, and perhaps this might have been the meaning behind the line Judge tenderly – of Me. However, her continued correspondence with Higginson almost seems to have elements of being a personal joke. It is debatable whether or not she ever wrote to Higginson with the intention of it leading to her poetry being published. In many of her letters she refers to herself as Higginson’s scholar; however, she rarely followed his advice, and understandably too as she had already developed her own poetic voice.
Taking all this into account, there is very likely another meaning that should be considered in the analysis of her poem No. 441. The Letter which the world never wrote to Dickinson may not have been something personal, but rather a letter regarding the world’s opinion of her poetry.
Emily Dickinson somehow always knew that she would never gain any recognition as a poet during her lifetime. But she left behind so many poems she must have known – or at least hoped – that someday the world would read her work the way she wrote it. And it could be that this hope was recorded in the words This is my letter to the World/That never wrote to Me.
Dickinson’s poem No. 441 was written sometime around 1862, therefore around the same time as her early letters to Thomas Wentworth Higginson. One of her letters, dated April 26, 1862, contains a line which seems to be the inspiration for No. 441’s The simple News that Nature told/With tender Majesty, this line being: “You ask of my companions. Hills, sir, and the sundown”.
This seems logical as much of Dickinson’s poetry was inspired by birds and flowers. However, it is more likely that the Nature she is referring to, the Nature into whose hands was committed a message, was Death. Dickinson knew that she was going to die before her poetry would be widely read. She knew that someone else, whose Hands she could not see, was going to publish her poetry. But she wanted to be remembered, and remembered properly. It may be that this, along with all her other poems were letters written to a world that, in her view, would ignore her indefinitely.
The final line of the poem, Judge tenderly of Me, is a heartfelt plea. A first observation of this may seem like a request for the critics to judge her work gently. But there is probably more to it than that. The few of Dickinson’s poems that were published during her lifetime were not only published anonymously, but were also highly altered. After her death, when her Letters to the World were in another person's hands, her poems were once again edited, often almost beyond recognition.
From a certain point of view, it took well into the 20th century, before the world judged tenderly of Emily Dickinson. Her poems were extremely popular almost immediately after they were published posthumously. However, it was not until 1960, when Thomas H. Johnson published an unedited edition of her poems, that the world finally did justice by her work.
Thomas H. Johnson edition
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