What mystery pervades…Susan?

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.

Any comments?

7 comments for “What mystery pervades…Susan?

  1. November 9, 2010 at 7:34 pm

    What a blessing to be teaching something other than Immigrant Chronicles!
    I have to say that I totally agree with you. While I think that there is some disconcerting sexual reference in this poem, mainly to be found in the peculiar use of s/he pronouns, I think that to delve too far into the Susan side of things could detract from students’ ability to actually engage with the module and the questions that the BOS expects students to explore.
    Clearly, of more import, is the persona’s personal struggle to belong in a world in which others have no issue relating to – the metaphor of water is significant as it is plentiful and common. The persona utilizes this metaphor to explain his/her own sense of dislocation – how is it that the grass can just sit there so close to the water? Whether the water is marriage or Susan or homosexuality in general, is almost insignificant. What matters is that the poet has used it to express a sense of not belonging.
    I stumbled across this which I liked: http://pensionerblog.blogspot.com/2010/10/poem-of-week-what-mystery-pervades-well.html

    • tutortales
      November 15, 2010 at 8:32 am

      Thanks Justine – that link was an interesting read. I quite like that blogger’s description as they read the poem. TT

  2. November 11, 2010 at 2:42 pm

    Hi there – I discovered your site last year and have really enjoyed your comments – been meaning to connect, so now is the time!
    I think there is a reassessment of Emily Dickinson’s poetry because a new biography has been written – Lives Like Loaded Guns – Emily Dickinson and her Family feuds, by Lyndall Gordon – who is an excellent biographer. It would seem that some of these poems are very specific and not quite so esoteric as commonly read – and Em was certainly capable of obsessive attachments.
    It is a very good read. Regards Wendy

    • tutortales
      November 15, 2010 at 8:36 am

      Hi Wendy – just popped over to your blog – great photos with your students, lol. And thanks for the mention of the new biography – that may explain it then. TT

  3. December 7, 2010 at 9:24 am

    I’ve actually subscribed to pensionerblog.blogspot.com because I really like the presentation of different links. It’s a great resource for all English teachers/tutors and students alike.

  4. November 18, 2011 at 1:10 am

    A little late to comment is hopefully better than never 🙂


    What a horrible web address… BUT this links to a google books extract of ‘Critical companion to Emily Dickinson: a literary reference to her life and work’ By Sharon Leiter.

    Dickinson sent a copy of this poem TO Susan, literally replacing words to say “Susan”.

    And so, Leiter (and others) suggest that the poem reflects Susan’s sense of feeling confined in her marriage, to Dickinson’s brother Austin, and that no matter how much he got to know her, he could only scrape the surface. This shows respect for Susan as well as nature, comparatively. And also, perhaps – perhaps!, hints at Dickinson’s own belief that no matter how much others try to belong to her, her enigmatic personality means that they will never understand her. And that, the more they know, the less they understand. Likewise, this resonates with Year 12 students who are just coming to terms with finding out things about their friends that they have suppressed/withheld for years for fear of feeling like they do not ‘belong’ (oh I hate the b word!)…

    I teach this perspective re Susan, as well as the face-value perspective of the poem. If we didn’t know anything about Dickinson, then we would just say it’s about the persona/nature and the connection between them. But the NSW Syllabus guides students to explore how “perceptions are shaped within personal, cultural, historical and social contexts”. As such, a deep knowledge of WHY Dickinson wrote the poem, not just how it resonates to us on a superficial basis, is important.

    But these are just my thoughts.

    I hope that no one else agrees and therefore…that no one else explores this – so that my students stand out!!!


    Boo, hiss to Immigrant Chronicle. May I never have to read another essay on Skryzynecki again!

    All the best.

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