Well, I’m tutoring Emily Dickinson for AOS: Belonging this 2011 HSC year! I did it before in 2009, so its refreshing to NOT do Skrzynecki.
But I came across something really surprising yesterday.
My student said that the poem, What mystery pervades a well!, is about Dickinson’s best friend, Susan. Her teacher had explained to the class that Susan was Dickinson’s neighbour and best friend, who then married Dickinson’s brother.
Apparently the poem can be read as:
What mystery pervades Susan
She lives so far
A neighbour from another world
Residing in a jar
The jar symbolises the fragile shell in which Susan lives.
Whose limit none have ever seen
But just her lid of glass
Like looking every time you please
In an abyss’s face!
Susan is endless and amazing?
She does not appear afraid
I often wonder she
Can stand so close and look so bold
At what is awe to me.
Susan is unafraid of marriage – something which Dickinson fears, because it will take away her identity (see the poem ‘I gave myself to Him’).
And so forth.
I’ve never heard of this interpretation before! Have other tutors and teachers been teaching the poem this way? Or have other students been learning the poem this way?
I’ve only ever read the poem as about Dickinson’s relationship (fear/awe) with nature!
After a quick Google search, I found some commentary on the significance of Susan on Dickinson’s poetry – but they seem to be mainly from gay/lesbian interpretations, which viewed Dickinson’s love for Susan as romantic. There seems to be a lot of speculation over Dickinson’s biography.
However, I think that interpreting What mystery pervades a well! as a poem about Susan is dangerous for students, because they risk focusing too much on biography (explaining who Susan is) and speculation about what words have been changed to replace Susan’s name etc.
I’d be really interested to see how other HSC students, tutors, teachers have approached this poem.