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Emily Dickinson: Scandalous Spinster?

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In 1882, a young bride new to Amherst, Massachusetts asked her neighbor about the mysterious sisters who lived next door. "You will not allow your husband to go there, I hope," said the neighbor. "I went in there one day, and in the drawing room I found Emily reclining in the arms of a man. What can you say to that?" The spinster neighbors, the gossip continued, "[had not], either of them, any idea of morality." 

Intriguing stuff for Victorian New England—and even more intriguing considering that the woman getting it on was Emily Dickinson, a poet often painted as virginal and antisocial. But the story of Emily's love life is more complicated than a forbidden moment on a divan. It involves a family feud, flirtatious letters, and probably a bit of making out.

Scholars have long puzzled over the romantic dichotomy presented by Emily's seemingly reclusive existence and her passionate poetry. True, Emily became more mysterious and secluded as she got older, but she also led a social, if sheltered, life. That extended to romantic relationships, too: Recent scholarship seems to point to a thwarted engagement with George Gould, who became a lifelong friend. And historians have asked themselves whether Emily's close female friendships were platonic or sexual. In fact, one of Emily's rumored hook-ups may have been her sister-in-law Sue—the very woman who warned her neighbor about Emily's wayward behavior. 

But the web of Emily's wild nights doesn't end there. Though she became more and more socially withdrawn as an adult (for example, she refused to go downstairs for her father's funeral, preferring to listen through the door), Emily seems to have fallen in love again in her mid-forties. This time, her lover was Otis Lord, a prominent judge and a close friend of her father's. During her father's life, she could never have openly pursued Lord. Freed by her father's death, the two seem to have deepened their relationship. Soon after Lord's wife died, Emily was writing him letters like this:

Dont you know you are happiest while I withhold and not confer—dont you know that "No" is the wildest word we consign to Language?

And this

While others go to Church, I go to mine, for are you not my Church, and have we not a Hymn that no one knows but us? 

But despite Lord's long visits, despite Emily's apparent desire to marry him, even despite Lord's passionate overtures and the "heavenly hours" they spent together in the parlor, a marriage never came to pass. Perhaps Lord's niece and heir discouraged her uncle from making it official. (The niece, Abbie Farley, was even more spiteful than Sue when it came to describing Emily Dickinson—she preferred phrases like "little hussy," "loose morals," and "crazy about men.") Perhaps Emily refused to cross the line due to epilepsy or another illness. Or did Sue, hurt by Emily's neglect, spread more rumors about her sister-in-law's morality to prevent the match? 

If she did, it came back to bite her: The young bride whom she had warned away became fascinated with the Dickinson family in the end—so fascinated that she became Emily's literary champion after her death ... and seduced Sue's husband as part the bargain. Now, over a century later, it seems easier to paint the "virgin recluse" woman-in-white brush. Perhaps we'd do better to chuck out our misperception of Emily as shy spinster and envision her as a self-assured lover instead—unashamedly Rowing in Eden—/Ah! the sea!/Might I but moor—/Tonight in thee! 

Sources: Thinking Musically, Writing Expectantly: New Biographical Information about Emily Dickinson; Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds; "Emily Dickinson's Love Life," via The Emily Dickinson Museum); A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade; Emily Dickinson; Emily Dickinson Electronic Archives

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An AI Program Wrote Harry Potter Fan Fiction—and the Results Are Hilarious
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Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

“The castle ground snarled with a wave of magically magnified wind.”

So begins the 13th chapter of the latest Harry Potter installment, a text called Harry Potter and the Portrait of What Looked Like a Large Pile of Ash. OK, so it’s not a J.K. Rowling original—it was written by artificial intelligence. As The Verge explains, the computer-science whizzes at Botnik Studios created this three-page work of fan fiction after training an algorithm on the text of all seven Harry Potter books.

The short chapter was made with the help of a predictive text algorithm designed to churn out phrases similar in style and content to what you’d find in one of the Harry Potter novels it "read." The story isn’t totally nonsensical, though. Twenty human editors chose which AI-generated suggestions to put into the chapter, wrangling the predictive text into a linear(ish) tale.

While magnified wind doesn’t seem so crazy for the Harry Potter universe, the text immediately takes a turn for the absurd after that first sentence. Ron starts doing a “frenzied tap dance,” and then he eats Hermione’s family. And that’s just on the first page. Harry and his friends spy on Death Eaters and tussle with Voldemort—all very spot-on Rowling plot points—but then Harry dips Hermione in hot sauce, and “several long pumpkins” fall out of Professor McGonagall.

Some parts are far more simplistic than Rowling would write them, but aren’t exactly wrong with regards to the Harry Potter universe. Like: “Magic: it was something Harry Potter thought was very good.” Indeed he does!

It ends with another bit of prose that’s not exactly Rowling’s style, but it’s certainly an accurate analysis of the main current that runs throughout all the Harry Potter books. It reads: “‘I’m Harry Potter,’ Harry began yelling. ‘The dark arts better be worried, oh boy!’”

Harry Potter isn’t the only work of fiction that Jamie Brew—a former head writer for ClickHole and the creator of Botnik’s predictive keyboard—and other Botnik writers have turned their attention to. Botnik has previously created AI-generated scripts for TV shows like The X-Files and Scrubs, among other ridiculous machine-written parodies.

To delve into all the magical fiction that Botnik users have dreamed up, follow the studio on Twitter.

[h/t The Verge]

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Vivid Imagery Makes Poetry More Pleasurable, According to Psychologists
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Contrary to what English teachers led us to believe, most readers don’t judge poetry based on factors like alliteration and rhyme. In fact, a new study published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts suggests that vivid imagery (i.e. sense-evoking description) is what makes a poem compelling, according to Smithsonian.

To determine why some poetic works are aesthetically pleasing while others are less so, researchers from New York University and the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt, Germany, had more than 400 online volunteers read and rate 111 haikus and 16 sonnets. Participants answered questions about each one, including how vivid its imagery was, whether it was relaxing or stimulating, how aesthetically pleasing they found it, and whether its content was positive or negative.

Not surprisingly, taste varied among subjects. But researchers did find, overall, that poems containing colorful imagery were typically perceived as more pleasurable. (For example, one favorite work among subjects described flowers as blooming and spreading like fire.) Emotional valence—a poem's emotional impact—also played a smaller role, with readers ranking positive poems as more appealing than negative ones. Poems that received low rankings were typically negative, and lacked vivid imagery.

Researchers think that vivid poems might also be more interesting ones, which could explain their popularity in this particular study. In the future, they hope to use similar methodology to investigate factors that might influence our enjoyment of music, literature, and movies.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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