This year we made our third visit to Brattleboro, Vermont and on each visit I have wanted to make the trip an hour south to Amherst where the former home of the poet Emily Dickinson is open to the public as a museum. Amherst is an attractive College town – five in all in the area – with some interesting shops and plenty of eateries.
On the Friday of our stay I drove myself back down into Massachusetts. The museum was easy to find and I was able to book onto the second tour of the day : Emily Dickinson’s World a 90-minute guided tour of both the Homestead (Emily Dickinson’s house) and The Evergreens (Austin and Susan Dickinson’s home). This constitutes an in-depth focus on Emily Dickinson’s life and family and the major influences on her writing. Includes the parlors, library, and the poet’s bedroom at the Homestead; the library, parlor, dining room, kitchen, maid’s room, water closet, nursery, and “Emily Room” at The Evergreens.
The Poet’s Bedroom is currently under renovation
As I had just missed the first tour by a few minutes I decided to buy the tour of the grounds which is an audio and self-guided.
“Grounds of Memory: a guide to the Dickinson landscape” The audio tour of the outdoor Dickinson grounds (duration of full-length tour is 60 minutes; visitors may tailor the tour to fit their needs) Explores Emily Dickinson’s fascination with the natural world and her family’s deep interest in the land and includes eighteen stops outside the Homestead and The Evergreens. Stops may be visited in any order. Each stop offers a 2- or 3-minute narration and at least one Dickinson poem appropriate to that stop.
Narrated by poet laureate Richard Wilbur
Voice of Emily Dickinson provided by poet Mary Jo Salter
First three stops are at the Flower Garden
The Ornamental Flower Garden and the Homestead
Main Street looking towards Amherst
The West Bedroom (1st floor, RHS) was Emily’s
The Evergreens – built by Edward Dickinson as a wedding gift to his son and daughter-in-law on their marriage
The grassy path between the two homes – “Just wide enough for two who love” (ED)
Here is a brief biography of the poet but the tour really brought to life her life and the lives of her family in particular her sister, Lavinia, her mother and father and her brother, Austen and his family.
“EMILY DICKINSON was born in Amherst at the Homestead on December 10, 1830. Her quiet life was infused with a creative energy that produced almost 1800 poems and a profusion of vibrant letters.
Her lively childhood and youth were filled with schooling, reading, explorations of nature, religious activities, significant friendships, and several key encounters with poetry. [She was not always the recluse that many choose to characterise her - at one time she called herself The Belle of Amherst.] Her most intense writing years consumed the decade of her late 20s and early 30s; during that time she composed almost 1100 poems. She made few attempts to publish her work, choosing instead to share them privately with family and friends. In her later years Dickinson increasingly withdrew from public life. Her garden, her family (especially her brother’s family at The Evergreens) and close friends, and health concerns occupied her.
With a few exceptions, her poetry remained virtually unpublished until after she died on May 15, 1886. After her death, her poems and life story were brought to the attention of the wider world through the competing efforts of family members and intimates.” [source]
This was a house visit par excellence. The 90 minute houses tour was filled with interest and insight into the lives. The Dickinson Landscape self-guided audio tour complete with poetry readings added to almost complete immersion into ED’s life and thoughts. Our house guide was entertainment herself and added poetry quotations and a quick ‘class’ in the importance of word choice in a ‘schoolroom’ – in which we all participated. No photography was allowed in the house but the tour was such fun and so informative that I will forgive them for that. Having visited the home of a poet I had barely heard of I came away feeling as if I met her myself. Well done, Emily Dickinson House Museum!
On leaving the Museum I couldn’t resist a quick visit to another nearby museum – almost from the sublime to the ridiculous – The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. A purpose-built centre devoted to the art of contemporary children’s book illustrator Eric Carle. We still have a very dog-eared copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar at home.
The Eric Carle Museum
This is what a Very Hungry Caterpillar looks like!
And finally, the next day we both made the journey back down to Amherst, enjoyed a decent lunch and I tracked down the Dickinson graves in West Cemetery where there is also a Community History Mural featuring characters from the Amherst story from all fields of experience (farming, literature, domestic life, education, military, industry and economic life) and including, of course, Emily Dickinson herself.
The Dickinson Graves in West Cemetery, Amherst
Wording on Emily’s Gravestone
The Amherst Community Mural, West Cemetery
Emily Dickinson (Lavinia behind) on the Community Mural