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What I’m Reading: Maid as Muse by Aife Murray


Maid as Muse: How Servants Changed Emily Dickinson’s Life and Language by Aife Murray opened my eyes to some ways a poet listened and composed. Aife Murray is devoted both to Emily Dickinson’s poems and understanding how they came to be, and this book is a record of rigorous research. She charts Emily Dickinson’s productivity through the years, and notes that she wrote the most poems when the family had good household help. Emily’s father always craved her bread and gingerbread, and she never left the kitchen for long, but when there were reliable cooks and help lighting fires, carrying water, and buying groceries, it seems she wrote more poems, particularly during the seventeen years when Margaret Maher, called Maggie within the house, was around.


By Aife’s Murray account, Maggie was worth the work the Dickinsons did to lure her away from the Boltwoods, another respected Amherst family. In this book, she’s given respect for filling the oil lamps Emily wrote by, and saving grocery receipts, chocolate wrappers, old envelopes, and brown paper bags that Emily often composed upon. Daily conversations with Maggie may have affected the language of Dickinson’s poems. Aife Murray traveled to Ireland to hear pronunciations she speculates made rhymes and rhythms in Dickinson’s poems that wouldn’t otherwise be heard. “The queen of mimicry took an improvisational page from her servants’ books. Even her genius for ambiguity could have found influence among servants for whom the art of evasion and ambiguity were part survival strategy and, at least in the case of the Irish, part of their legal tradition.”

Perhaps most importantly, Emily stored the booklets of poetry she stitched together in Maggie’s trunk, and she asked Maggie to burn these when she died. Maggie, who’d seen the care put into the work, did not do as she was bidden: if she had, I wouldn’t be writing this post, wouldn’t, like so many of us, have read these poems. “It was a spirited, defiant act…Appealing to superiors, in this case Susan and Austin, is what would be expected from a servant.” (p. 204) Maggie found more poems she brought to Mabel Loomis Todd, who she cleaned and cooked for from 3 P.M. to 8 P.M. every day, at no charge, while Mabel Loomis Todd prepared poems for the first printed book. It was also Maggie who provided the daguerreotype we have of Emily Dickinson taken when she was sixteen. Emily’s family didn’t care for the picture and destroyed their copies.


In her will, Emily Dickinson wrote the names of six Irish workmen she wanted as her pallbearers. This unusual request was respected, though Emily’s brother, Austin, asked four friends he considered more respectable to accompany them. Aife Murray interviewed descendants, and walked with one through St. Mary’s cemetery in Northampton, Mass. to find Maggie’s grave. She’s given talks and a popular tour around Amherst, which ended at Emily’s gravesite. She asked how many there were related to the pallbearers. Forty proud people raised their hands.

I loved this book, which prodded me to read more about Emily Dickinson, after a break to catch up on some novels. For Poetry Friday posts, please visit Elaine at Wild Rose Reader
Tags: poetry friday
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