As an adult woman, Emily
Dickinson wrote hundreds of short poems 1,775 are known
that she secreted away in a locked chest in her bedroom. All the
while she was writing poetry, she capably managed the domestic life
of her fathers house. Eventually, she became a recluse, never
again venturing beyond The Homestead. After her death in 1886 and
with the posthumous publication of her work, her reputation as a
poet sputtered to life. In time critics began to recognize her genius.
Today she is assigned to the very first rank of Americas poets.
is a wonderfully elusive and evocative story as elusive
and evocative as her poetry. Literary pilgrims come from all corners
of the world to The Homestead, now a National Historic Landmark,
to pay homage to a poet whose work on the surface as disarmingly
simple as hymn lyrics continues to evade analysis. Each
year sees the publication of scores of scholarly works, in many
languages, that attempt to tease out the meaning of Dickinsons
poetry. And each year, in secular late twentieth-century Amherst,
May 15, the anniversary of her death, is celebrated as reverently
as if it were a saints day.
over 20 years, Professor. Richard S. Ellis was, for all practical
purposes, oblivious to the world of Dickinson. He drove by The
Homestead several times each week without once venturing inside.
A distinguished mathematician who studied literature at Harvard
(he even wrote an honors thesis on the work of the German poet
Rilke) and who has written poetry and a novel entitled Blessings
from the Dead, Ellis was, in his words, untouched by Dickinson;
I had not opened myself up to her poetry, until a break
in his busy professional life provided a fortuitous opportunity.
joined the faculty of mathematics and statistics at the University
of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1975. He is known as a devoted
teacher and a prolific scholar who has broken new ground in probability
theory. Since the publication of his acclaimed monograph Entropy,
Large Deviations, and Statistical Mechanics in 1985 (Springer-Verlag),
he has been a central figure in the field of large deviations.
In fact, his name is part of a key theory the Gartner-Ellis
Theorem used by mathematicians, engineers, and computer
scientists in their research. Ellis has co-authored a sequel to
his monograph A Weak Convergence Approach to the Theory
of Large Deviations (John Wiley & Sons, 1997) and
has published over 50 papers in mathematics, physics, and engineering
years ago, Ellis was completing his second book. Writing a research-level
mathematics book is exacting and exhausting work, and he was absorbed
in the last major task, preparing an index. Ive noticed
this about myself, Ellis mused recently to a visitor at
his office in the Lederle Graduate Research Tower. When
I come to the end of an intellectual project that has required
me to focus intensely, I often experience a huge release of energy.
thus fortified with new stores of energy and in an expansive frame
of mind, the mathematician agreed to teach an adult education
class in the Torah the Hebrew Bible at his synagogue.
(It happens that Amhersts synagogue, the Jewish Community
of Amherst, is housed in what was once the towns Second
Congregational Church, a half-mile down Main Street from The Homestead.)
Some years ago, on an academic leave in Jerusalem, Ellis reconnected
with his Jewish heritage, and has since become a serious student
of the Hebrew Bible.
thinking about the class, Ellis decided to focus on the Jacob
cycle from Genesis. Most readers will remember the story of Jacob
cheating his twin brother Esau in order to obtain their fathers
blessing, and the episode of Jacob wrestling all night with an
Angel. In Hebrew The language in which the Jacob cycle is
told is relatively simple, Ellis said. I knew it to
be rich, enigmatic, paradoxical material.
the same time, and propelled by the same burst of intellectual
energy, Ellis began to attend an informal Emily Dickinson poetry
seminar being taught at The Homestead by a friend, the poet and
Dickinson scholar Jay Ladin. One of the several poems Ladin and
his 16 adult students examined in the weekly course was the 70-word
A little East of Jordan, which treats Jacobs
encounter with an unknown adversary at Peniel pney el in
Hebrew, translated as Face (or Faces) of God.
was talking about Dickinsons ambiguous use of language,
Ellis said. And in a flash I saw the connection between
Emily Dickinson and the Jacob story in the Hebrew Bible. Dickinsons
poetry is very dense, he continued. You cant
unpack it. Those 70 words are a universe. The language is gorgeous.
And it resonates with the language of the Hebrew Bible.