On this holiday dedicated to lovers (of both the practicing and the prospective kind), we should note that Emily Dickinson’s first appearance in print was in the form of a valentine. “Magnum bonum, ‘harum scarum'” had its debut in the February 1850 issue of the relatively new Amherst College student literary magazine, The Indicator. Like all of Dickinson’s writings published during her lifetime, it was believed to have appeared without her consent. The editors of the magazine intimated that a good many contributions came in from female admirers but they chose this one to be published.

It is not hard to see why. “Magnum bonum” is no conventional valentine:

magnumbonum1 magnumbonum2

This is a lollapalooza of a valentine. Not at all demure! It has verve, style, wit and allusion. In short, just what I would want the 19-year old Emily Dickinson, now just beginning to feel her creative powers and to think of herself truly as a poet, to have for her literary debut. “We’ll build Alms-houses, and transcendental State prisons, and scaffolds – we will blow out the sun, and the moon, and encourage invention. Alpha shall kiss Omega – we will ride up the hill of glory – Hallelujah, all hail!” Sounds like a memorable night out.

George Gould (AC 1850)
George Gould (AC 1850)

It is believed by most biographers that “Magnum bonum” was intended by Dickinson as a valentine for one of the editors of The Indicator, George Gould.  Gould, a towering 6’8″ and from an impoverished background in rural Worcester County, was considered one of the most brilliant men of Amherst’s class of 1850. He was a close friend, classmate and fraternity brother of Emily Dickinson’s brother Austin, and as such would have been on familiar terms with all the Dickinsons. Many have speculated (among them, posthumously, Emily’s sister Lavinia) that there was a romantic bond between them, but the evidence for this is dubious.

The initials used in this piece are curious. It is signed “Yours, truly, C.” for which no one has an adequate explanation. The editorial commentary that follows, however, ends with the flourish “Q.E.D.” (quod erat demonstrandum, “that which was to be demonstrated,” the standard conclusion to a mathematical solution). But to those in the know at Amherst, might these letters have just as easily been interpreted “quoth Emily Dickinson”? A Valentine’s Day puzzle.

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