I’ll tell you how the Sun rose —
A Ribbon at a time —
The Steeples swam in Amethyst —
The news, like Squirrels, ran —
The Hills untied their Bonnets . . .
“It engaged my total attention,” Dr. Farr said years later, recalling her desperate puzzlement over Dickinson’s description of the morning shadows retreating over the hills. “I said, ‘Mother who was this woman?’ ”
Thus began Dr. Farr’s lifelong engagement with Dickinson, the reclusive 19th-century writer who fired the American imagination with her enigmatic lines about life, death, beauty and truth.
Dr. Farr also ventured into the realm of fiction and poetry, penning an epistolary novel about Dickinson as well as a poetry collection of her own, “What Lies Beyond” (2019), inspired by the poet who had set her on her course.
Dr. Farr died June 17 at a hospital in Washington. She was 85 and had congestive heart failure, said her son, Alec Farr.
Elizabeth Petrino, a professor of English at Fairfield University in Connecticut and the president of the Emily Dickinson International Society, wrote in an email that she and her colleagues “respect and revere” Dr. Farr as “one of the old guard in Dickinson Studies.”
Dr. Farr was a feminist scholar who belonged to the generation of literary critics who first considered “what it meant to think about Dickinson as a female poet and about what the pressures on Dickinson’s own life would have been,” Cristanne Miller, a Dickinson scholar at the University at Buffalo SUNY added. “All of this seems so utterly rudimentary now.”
According to a competing school of academic thought, Dickinson’s poetry was properly analyzed on its own, without references to her life as a woman or otherwise. But Dr. Farr contended that such a reading was incomplete, and that only by examining Dickinson’s experience in all its particularities could her genius be fully revealed.
“If you don’t acknowledge the life of the poet or the life of the painter that invests his painting or her poem . . . with its value and with its passion, then you’ve missed something,” she said in an interview with poet Grace Cavalieri for the radio program “The Poet and the Poem,” presented by the Library of Congress.
In “The Passion of Emily Dickinson,” Dr. Farr explored the works of literature — from the Bible to Shakespeare to Charlotte Brontë’s novel “Jane Eyre” — as well as the artistic movements, including the Hudson River School, that helped shape Dickinson’s aesthetic. For Dr. Farr as for Dickinson, observed Martha Nell Smith, an English professor at the University of Maryland, “the fields of Art were sacred. Works by both of them exude that over and over.”
The New York Times, which ranked Dr. Farr’s volume among the notable books of 1992, described it as “a persuasive study of how Dickinson’s poems, read in the context of her time, her environment and her days alone behind a locked door, reveal her sensuality.”
In “The Gardens of Emily Dickinson,” Dr. Farr led readers deeper into Dickinson’s physical environment, particularly the orchard, woodland, and flower and vegetable gardens of the Dickinson Homestead, illuminating the botanical symbolism in Dickinson’s poetry.
“When she was alive, people knew her as a gardener first and a poet second, if they knew her as a poet at all,” Dr. Farr told The Washington Post in 2010, when the New York Botanical Garden mounted an exhibit, inspired by Dr. Farr’s book, that re-created Dickinson’s gardens.
Marta McDowell, author of the book “Emily Dickinson’s Gardening Life,” credits Dr. Farr with revealing Dickinson in the outdoors, broadening the popular conception of the elusive poet “as an indoor person, hermit-like, in her bedroom, wearing her white dress.”
Dr. Farr set her novel, “I Never Came to You in White” (1996), which consists of fictional letters between Dickinson and her contemporaries, mainly during Dickinson’s unhappy time at what is now Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.
But she reached perhaps her greatest communion with Dickinson by writing her own poetry. She “entered the critical community with something the rest of us don’t have, which is the poet’s sensibility,” said Eleanor Elson Heginbotham, a Dickinson expert and professor emerita at Concordia University Saint Paul in Minnesota.
In one poem, Dr. Farr juxtaposed two historical events, the creation of the oil painting “In the Dining Room” by the French impressionist Berthe Morisot in 1886 and the death of Dickinson, which occurred the same year.
“The supper of the heart is when the guest has gone,”
said Emily Dickinson, who died as Morisot
put varnish on this dream of absent love,
catching up her brushes, like Emily’s slips of paper,
when a guest entered the room: hiding,
like Emily’s life, her paintings behind screens
when love was needed.
Judith Marilyn Banzer was born in New York City on March 13, 1936. Her parents, she said, accompanied her nearly every weekend to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she “looked and feasted upon painting.” Another excursion took them to Dickinson’s grave in Amherst, Mass.
The nuns at Dr. Farr’s Catholic school looked askance at Dickinson’s writings, Dr. Farr recalled, because Dickinson was a lapsed Congregationalist. But “I just went on with my own personal saint,” she told Cavalieri.
She began writing in her youth and was in her early 20s when a panel of poets including Marianne Moore selected one of her verses for inclusion in an anthology.
Dr. Farr received a bachelor’s degree in English literature and French from Marymount Manhattan College in 1957, then pursued graduate studies in English literature at Yale University, where she received a master’s degree in 1959 and a PhD in 1965. In addition to her work on Dickinson, she published a book on the life and art of the American poet Elinor Wylie.
Dr. Farr taught at several universities before joining Georgetown in 1977 and took emeritus status in 1999.
“Having taught or studied at several largely male-dominated academic institutions,” Petrino observed, “Judith came of age in academia at a time when women worked three times as hard as men and were paid less than half as much. Despite these obstacles, she managed to write several acclaimed works about Emily Dickinson, draft a novel, write poetry, give lectures, and more.”
Survivors include her husband of 58 years, George Farr of Washington; a son, Alec Farr of Bethesda, Md.; and two grandchildren.
For the epigraph of her poetry collection, Dr. Farr selected a verse from her beloved poet:
If I should cease to bring a Rose
Upon a festal day,
’Twill be because beyond the Rose
I have been called away
She returned to those lines in the title poem of her collection:
What lies “beyond the rose,”
the poet asked, wondering in her Amherst cell,
though like mine her thoughts were rapt with roses.
To live with ugliness, we must hallow loveliness
the more, remembering that it often springs
from mud into light-filled air.
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