Circumference: Emily’s Legacy of Ecstasy

In July, 1862, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, then a resident of Worcester, Massachusetts, received a letter from a young woman from Amherst. Below are some excerpts from the letter:

I had no portrait, now, but am small, like the wren; and my hair is bold, like the chestnut bur; and my eyes, like the sherry in the glass, that the guest leaves. Would this do just as well?  

If you truly consent, I recite now. Will you tell me my fault, frankly as to yourself, for I had rather wince than die. Men do not call the surgeon to commend the bone, but to set it, sir, and fracture within is more critical. And for this, preceptor, I shall bring you obedience, the blossom from my garden, and every gratitude I know.  

Perhaps you smile at me. I could not stop for that. My business is circumference.

In October, 1891, an article written by Higginson appeared in The Atlantic, which quoted the above epistle, among others.

The letter was postmarked “Amherst,” and it was in a handwriting so peculiar that it seemed as if the writer might have taken her first lessons by studying the famous fossil bird-tracks in the museum of that college town.  

Of punctuation there was little; she used chiefly dashes, and it has been thought better, in printing these letters, as with her poems, to give them the benefit in this respect of the ordinary usages….. But the most curious thing about the letter was the total absence of a signature. It proved, however, that she had written her name on a card, and put it under the shelter of a smaller envelope inclosed in the larger; and even this name was written–as if the shy writer wished to recede as far as possible from view–in pencil, not in ink. The name was Emily Dickinson.

Who was this shy resident of Amherst, and what did she mean by this pronouncement, “My business is circumference”? Let us begin by reading one of her poems, which are listed by number, instead of title. This one casts a bit of light on the subject.


Emily Dickinson, Library of Congress

Frontispiece, Letters of Emily Dickinson, 1894. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-90564)


The Poets light but Lamps—
Themselves—go out—
The Wicks they stimulate—
If vital Light

Inhere as do the Suns—
Each Age a Lens
Disseminating their

The Emily Dickinson Lexicon, compiled by Brigham Young University, lists no less than thirteen detailed definitions for the term, “circumference” within the poet’s body of work. It is said that the word appears in six of her letters, and in 17 poems. A perusal of the definitions, while fascinating, did not immediately illumine my mind on the matter at hand. Puzzling over this, I began to read through more of her poems, allowing them appear visually to my mind’s eye as image-shapes, without immediately defining the content.


I saw no Way—The Heavens were stitched—
I felt the Columns close—
The Earth reversed her Hemispheres—
I touched the Universe—

And back it slid—and I alone—
A Speck upon a Ball—
Went out upon Circumference—
Beyond the Dip of Bell—


The Humming-Bird, Emily Dickinson

The Humming-Bird, Emily Dickinson

Pain—expands the Time—
Ages coil within
The minute Circumference
Of a single Brain—

Pain contracts—the Time—
Occupied with Shot
Gamuts of Eternities
Are as they were not—


Time feels so vast that were it not
For an Eternity—
I fear me this Circumference
Engross my Finity—

To His exclusion, who prepare
By Processes of Size
For the Stupendous Vision
Of his diameters—

There has been much scholarly speculation regarding Dickinson’s carefully chosen words, such as circumference, and circuit. Her verse brings to mind the Japanese art of arranging flowers, ikebana. In her verbal version, nouns and verbs are arranged with nearly mathematical precision into small “vases” on a page. The overall effect is the creation of a personal symbolic dialect, an homage to an inner world, the subtle and excruciatingly exquisite creation of microcosms, of a series of miniatures, of love-letters, unsent.

Hers was the world of a woman beset all round by circumscription: Emily Dickinson suffered from ill health and emotional stress, and was expected to remain at home as a caregiver when she was younger. She never married, although she did fall in love; she never bore children. Very few of her poems were published during her lifetime; the majority of her poems were not published until 1955. And yet she is considered by critics as one of the best poets the Americas have ever produced. The flame of her spirit reappears and burns anew on the page whenever a fresh pair of eyes considers her work.

My own quiet reading of Emily Dickinson concludes with the thought that she was, above all, an extraordinarily sensitive woman to whom feelings and emotions were momentous, who loved, and was deeply moved by whomever and whatever she encountered. Forced by solitude and circumstance to become even more profoundly acquainted with herself than most human beings, she was not satisfied by the two-dimensional container or structure of a typical poem as a vehicle for expression.

Dickinson, according to my reading of her work, literally envisioned herself into another dimension where she, through the geometry of her own prismatic poetry, colored by the keenest of emotions, soared toward those planes that most closely matched the intensity of her yearnings.


Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson, 1830-1886

Circumference thou Bride of Awe
Possessing thou shalt be
Possessed by every hallowed Knight
That dares to covet thee

Find ecstasy in life; the mere sense of living is joy enough….

Spirit cannot be moved by Flesh—It must be moved by spirit— It is strange that the most intangible is the heaviest—but Joy and Gravitation have their own ways. My ways are not your ways— (Letters of Emily Dickinson)


–Posted by Jillian Parker

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