The Undiscovered Continent

I discovered a poem I liked by Emily Dickinson in a poetry anthology. Her words seemed fresh, direct and unaffected. So I looked to see whether she was still writing. A surprise then to see she wrote the words in 1862.

I asked my partner who knows more about literature than me. ‘She’s American, I think’ she said. Transpires she is, from Massachusetts. Reclusive and introverted, Emily lived through letters. But, as with many writers throughout history, it only became evident how much she’d written after her death. Thousands of poems.

She lived much of her later life in what she called the ‘undiscovered continent’ of the mind and soul. She seemed to think of it as an almost a physical place you can inhabit and explore.

This set me thinking – puttering through slow traffic today – of Socrates. He thought everything could be discovered by earnest dialogue and reason – the answers are all there to be found in our heads if we are rigourous and vigourous enough.

Or Berkeley the ‘idealist’ philosopher, who argued that everything we see, touch and feel is ‘mind’ not matter. Then there are contemporary philosophers, who tease undergraduates with solipsism, asking ‘Are we sure it’s not all in our heads’.

The ‘undiscovered continent’ of the mind is a tempting destination. But it’s attractions need to be treated with care. Life is enriched by real world observation and experience and is best explored with friends.

A reclusive life might find order. But the beauty and brutality of nature, the intense experiences of life and the fickle gods of chance are in the material world. The ‘undiscovered continent’ is a place I like to visit, but isn’t a place to live I feel.

Here’s the line from Emily Dickinson which drew me to her and her poetry.

I dwell in possibility, a fairer house than prose, more numerous of windows – superior for doors.

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4 Responses to The Undiscovered Continent

  1. Patricia says:

    Because you are a scholarly type and well read I was surprised you didn’t know about Emily Dickenson. (Here in America she is required reading in most high school English classes.) One of the few poets I like and understand. I think she had a sad life though.

  2. John Worne says:

    She, like too much of American literature is an undiscovered continent for me Patricia, but coincidentally a picture of her popped up as the random screensaver on switching off my Kindle last night. She looked happier in that photo than on Wikipedia. Can’t have been easy being a woman in her era.

  3. A friend in contemplation says:

    One of the interesting things about Emily Dickinson is that she was very clear about the limitations of her own society. The introvertion which you are sensing may be a consequence of that – if you can’t beat it, find a different route. Probably not a response which we find easy or acceptable in our age, but more understandable in hers. We are fortunate in the permissiveness and openness of relationship with which we live.

    Incidentally, my collaborator Truss tells me that is common for her friends to pepper their communication with grammatical infelicities to check whether she is reading. I am.

  4. Pingback: Cathedral or Cave | Achilles & Aristotle

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