Emily Dickinson's famed 1873 response to George Eliot's monumental novel Middlemarch is more than the hyperbolic praise by a village spinster poet for a contemporary with whom she had far more in common than most understand. The "glory" comment appears midway in a letter that reflects in every line Dickinson's relish for Eliot's fun with ridiculous people and, more significantly, her deep sympathy and identification with the generous humanistic bent of Eliot's thought. The letter, like the novel, is polyvocal, moving from satire toward obnoxious hypocrites, through confrontations with the harshest human conditions, to explorations of possibilities for belief. The letter to her Norcross cousins follows several—usually funny—epistolary references to Eliot's characters (three, at least, to The Mill's Aunt Glegg); references to the inspiration of Daniel Deronda; and questions about Eliot/Evans/Lewes the woman and fellow struggler with orthodox theology. Read with Middlemarch's cast of Cadwallader-like characters in mind, the letter's digs at Mrs. Sweetser have more resonance; with the tragedies of Dorothea and Lydgate in mind, its meditations on the transitory pleasures of "Spring" and "Life" have greater relevance; and with the book's endings, particularly the subplot of the Bulstrode marriage, its conclusions on "the mysteries of human nature" acquire more richness. What "glory" might have meant to the poet remains problematic, but attending closely to the Eliot novel that the avid reader had just completed reveals that Dickinson's capacities as a passionate reader are one with her poetic approaches to measuring "the finite" against "the infinite."


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pp. 20-36
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