I’ve been having great fun with a book I got at the Emily Dickinson Museum called Lives Like Loaded Guns by Lyndall Gordon.
The Dickinson family had a grandmother, Lucretia Gunn, who was “tart and ill-tempered.” When anyone said anything nasty, it was excused as Grandma Gunn coming out.
This was probably behind Emily’s line “My life had stood — a Loaded Gun.”
I’ve learned a tremendous amount about the Dickinsons. About Austin Dickinson’s well-documented adultery, about Emily’s liaison with her father’s friend Judge Lord (I guess she didn’t ‘die wondering’ as my grandmother would say) and about Emily’s epilepsy.
Gordon makes a good case that epilepsy is what caused Emily to become a recluse, and also what gave her the insight to write immortal poetry.
In a fascinating footnote about epilepsy, Gordon references Prince Myshkin in Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, who describes his epileptic experience in this way: “Yes, for this moment one could give up his whole life.”
Dostoyevsky suggests that ‘the epileptic Mahomet’ had an attack that provided him with his transcendental visions: “In that second he was able to survey all the habitations of Allah.”