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Kate Atkinson, 2007; Emily Dickinson, c.1847


Kate Atkinson’s new book begins and ends with the Amherst poet, Emily Dickinson, a writer she has great fellow feeling for, often quoting in work which, like Dickinson’s (“Civilisation – spurns – the Leopard!”) is trained on the unconventional. Atkinson’s title, Started Early, Took My Dog, is from Dickinson’s poem no. 520 (Complete Works, 1955). It is easy to imagine how the poet’s searching intelligence, love of riddling and use of threat might attract a writer of detective stories, but it is the poem closing the novel – about the persistence of hope – that points to a deeper relationship between the two writers, linking Dickinson’s abashed figures to the obscure, imperfect heroes of Atkinson’s fiction.  Here are the two poems:

520                                                                                       254

I started Early – Took my Dog –                              `Hope’ is the thing with feathers –

And visited the Sea –                                                     That perches in the soul –

The Mermaids in the Basement                                And sings the tune without the words –

Came out to look at me –                                             And never stops at all –

And Frigates – in the Upper Floor                          And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –

Extended Hempen Hands –                                        And sore must be the storm

Presuming Me to be a Mouse –                                 That could abash the little bird

Aground – upon the Sands –                                      That kept so many warm.

But no Man moved Me – till the Tide                     I’ve heard it in the chillest land –

Went past my simple Shoe –                                      And on the strangest Sea –

And past my Apron – and my Belt –                       Yet, never, in Extremity,

And past my Bodice – too –                                        It asked a crumb – of Me.

And made as He would eat me up –

As wholly as a Dew

Upon a Dandelion’s Sleeve –

And then – I started – too –

And He – He followed – close behind –

I felt his Silver Heel

Upon my Ankle – Then my Shoes

Would overflow with Pearl –

Until We met the Solid Town –

No One He seemed to know –

And bowing – with a Mighty look –

At me – The Sea withdrew –

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