Dickinson’s Humming-Birds


In 2010 the photographer Annie Leibovitz paid a visit to the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts. Out of that trip she began to put together a book of photographs and accompanying text, which she published subsequently as Pilgrimage (2011). Almost the first photograph in the book is a full-page plate showing in extreme close-up a large Victorian glass dome filled with small, brilliantly-feathered birds, including five humming-birds poised as though in flight. Such explanation as is offered within the caption for the inclusion of these birds within Leibovitz’s Pilgrimage is puzzlingly unhelpful:


Life in the Dickinson family was complicated by the fact that Austin Dickinson [Emily’s brother] had a lover, Mabel Loomis Todd. After Emily died, Todd edited her poems and oversaw their publication. She also founded the Amherst Historical Society in 1899 and arranged for a friend of hers to leave her eighteenth-century house to the Amherst History Museum. A vitrine with stuffed birds from the former owner is in the museum’s Todd Room.


This case of birds then belonged neither to Dickinson nor her family, has never been on display within either of the Dickinson houses, and within the Amherst History Museum functions purely as a ‘period’ marker of local and social history, made the more potent by modern unease and fascination in the face of taxidermy as an aesthetic that definitively belongs to the past. Despite all this, the stuffed birds are here constructed by Leibovitz as appropriately ‘Dickinson’s’ birds, as part of a larger meditation upon the poet’s life and works. What then, is this case of silent and stilled birds being made to say about Dickinson?


One might perhaps begin with Victorian taxidermy, or, more specifically the Victorian passion for collecting and displaying hummingbirds. In the Victorian period, many well-to-do domestic interiors might boast such a display as this one. The oddity of such display is that although it aspires to lifelikeness, it actually achieves something impossibly unlifelike: only taxidermy can make the tiny humming-bird visible to the inspection of the human eye as more (or less) than a rapidly moving blur of jewel-like colour. The vitrine was in this sense a precursor to freeze-frame photography. The price of visibility, however, was in this instance perhaps particularly explicit: death. The case references, despite its best efforts, the unattainability of the hummingbird, the impossibility of capturing, naturally, its rapidly moving wings, or the velocity with which it motions itself into the air.


Once referenced to Dickinson, these humming-birds take on specificity. Leibovitz’s riddle invokes Dickinson’s poem written initially for a church bazaar as a charade, known nowadays by its first line, ‘A Route of Evanescence’. In its entirety, it reads:


A Route of Evanescence

With a revolving Wheel – [renewing/delusive/dissembling/dissolving]

A Resonance of Emerald –

A Rush of Cochineal –

And every Blossom on the Bush

Adjusts it’s [sic] tumbled Head –

The Mail from Tunis, probably,

An easy Morning’s ride.


The poem, which describes a humming bird in flight, suggests that for Dickinson, the advent of humming-birds from Mexico meant the arrival of spring. So far, so conventional, and so suitable for a church bazaar. But the humming-bird was also associated in Dickinson’s writings with intimate encounter. It could figure conversation, as in this letter from Dickinson to Eudocia Flynt, written July 1862:


Dear Mrs Flint

You and I, didn’t finish talking. Have you room for the sequel…

All the letters I could write,

Were not fair as this –

Syllables of Velvet –

Sentences of Plush –

Depths of Ruby, undrained –

Hid, Lip, for Thee,

Play it were a Humming Bird

And sipped just Me –


In other instances, encounters with the humming-bird are strikingly sexualized, even when Dickinson is writing to a girl of seven in a letter dated August 1862: ‘How is your garden – Mary? Are the Pinks true – and the Sweet Williams faithful? I’ve got a Geranium like a Sultana – and when the Humming-birds come down – Geranium and I shut our eyes – and go far away –.’  Invoking the theme of evanescent encounter, an earlier poem of 1862, titled ‘Within my Garden, rides a Bird’, recounts a whimsical conversation between poet and dog, on whether they had really seen the humming-bird ‘Or bore the Garden in the Brain/This Curiosity – ’, a question resolved by the evidence of the ‘just vibrating Blossoms!’


Leibovitz’s enigmatic photograph then evokes Dickinson’s tiny, occasional poems, glittering with dashes and darting with exotic punctuation, poems that were always much more body than print, hand-sewn together in little hand-written books now known as ‘facsicles’, or sent as enclosures within letters. It suggests too that Dickinson’s body might be read as an alien exotic captured, preserved and imprisoned within a Victorian interior. It might comment upon Todd’s collection and editing of Dickinson’s verse after her death; or upon the difficult relationship that existed between the two Dickinson sisters, Emily and Lavinia, their brother’s wife Sue Dickinson, and their brother’s mistress Mabel Loomis Todd, uncomfortably caged together in close proximity by Austin’s adultery. However literal these stuffed humming-birds in life-like poses beneath glass might seem to be, they are clearly as metaphorical and allegorical as those in Dickinson’s poetry.

Also on Emily Dickinson see https://www.open.ac.uk/blogs/literarytourist/?p=212


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