Emily Dickinson: Through a Queer Lens

Photo by Sydney Shaffer

By Sydney Shaffer

Taylor Swift’s version of the Emily and Sue love story

As a lesbian poet, I have always looked up to and loved Emily Dickinson. In my high school English class we read “Because I could not stop for Death” by Dickinson. I remember that moment as feeling my first connection to poetry, it made me feel emotions I had only thought of but never been able to put into words. Emily made me discover that poetry was an outlet for feelings, any and all of them. Fast forward to December 2020, when my favorite musical artist Taylor Swift came out with a beautiful poetic album titled Evermore. Track 10 titled Ivy hit me the hardest. When I listened I pictured two women in love that couldn’t be, it was about Emily and Sue. I just knew it. Titling the album Evermore made a connection to a love poem Emily had written for Sue titled “One Sister have I in our house (14)”, the line goes: 

“From out the wide night’s numbers

 –Sue – forevermore!”. 

The song starts from Sue’s POV, she is explaining that she never felt love from a woman before but when Emily touches her it brings about a brand new feeling, a good one. It is tarnished because they are not allowed to be together. But it is still the best thing Sue has ever experienced. The song goes on to explain that the love Sue has for Austin (Emily’s brother and Sue’s husband) will never compare to the love she has for Emily. The pain from this marriage goes away once she is with Emily and feels her touch. But Sue is promised to Austin because they are married. Because Emily and Austin are siblings, Sue lives on the same land as the Dickinson family, their homes standing right next to each other. Sue and Emily will always have each other in close proximity and that is enough for them. The chorus goes:

 Oh, goddamn

My pain fits in the palm of your freezing hand

Taking mine, but it’s been promised to another

Oh, I can’t

Stop you putting roots in my dreamland

My house of stone, your ivy grows

And now I’m covered in you”

It is repeated three times throughout the song and it emphasizes that the two women cannot stop the feelings they have; their love for eachother is so big it takes over both of their lives. It heals any pain they have. After the first chorus it switches to Emily’s POV.  Emily states that although she has to watch Sue and Austin be together she knows that he will never receive the love that she experiences from Sue. It brings her comfort and eases the pain of their marriage. 

Their POV’s blend together in the last part of the song, they both know they have to be cautious because they don’t know what would happen if Austin found out about them. They know he would be angry. It would not be accepted by anyone. Yet Sue and Emily both live for the moments they share together even if brief and in secret. The last part of the song; the bridge is the climax

“So yeah, it’s a fire

It’s a goddamn blaze in the dark

And you started it

You started it

So yeah, it’s a war

It’s the goddamn fight of my life

And you started it

You started it”

Their love is so strong, even in secret it is stronger than any other love they’ve ever had. Sue says Emily started it, Emily brought out that love in her. It was always a battle for Sue to be loyal to Austin but how much she loves Emily will always triumph that. Their love for each other in such a hard time to be in love with another woman inspires me to this day. I am able to openly love women and write poetry about them. Reading Emily’s poems about the sapphic love she experienced makes me wish she was alive today to be able to be open about it. This song so perfectly weaves the love story of Emily and Sue with beautiful poetic language. If you haven’t listened to it, hopefully you will after reading this! 

All I Wish To See

“this very moment, for I need her- I must have her, oh, give her to me!”” – Emily Dickinson, Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson’s Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson

When I kiss

women, I often think

of Emily Dickinson.

Her yearn, the volcano erupting 

inside of her

at the thought of love.

Her solitude –

looms over me as I force 

myself out of bed most days.

Why did I ever hide

in secret for so many years

when I knew my truth?

When I knew women 

like Emily could not escape the 

inevitable feeling of trappedness. 

I float effortlessly like the wind 

on that first 

chilly day of Autumn. 

I am okay with not 

being known – I am okay 

with glowing only slightly.

Emily would fit right in

with all the women

I share drinks with.

I would kindly 

escort her inside 

of my carriage – 

& take her on

a ride down

the streets of New York City,

lit by eccentric 

confetti lights and 

incandescent love.

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