Emily Dickinson was an American poet who lived a very introverted and reclusive life. Throughout her adult life she rarely travelled outside of Amherst or very far from home. Thought of as an eccentric by the locals, she became known for her inclination for white clothing and her reluctance to greet guests or, later in life, even leave her room. Most of her friendships were therefore carried out by correspondence.
Dickinson was a prolific private poet, choosing to publish few of her nearly eighteen hundred poems. The work that was published during her lifetime was typically altered significantly by the publishers following the conventional poetic rules of the time. Dickinson’s poems are unique for the era in which she wrote; they contain short lines, typically lack titles, and often utilize slant rhyme and unconventional capitalization and punctuation. Her poems also tend to deal with themes of death and immortality, two subjects which infused her letters to friends.
Although most of her acquaintances were probably aware of Dickinson’s writing, it was not until after her death in 1886, when Lavinia, Emily’s younger sister, discovered her collection of poems, that the extensiveness of Dickinson’s work became evident. Her first collection of poetry was published in 1890 by personal acquaintances.
A complete and mostly unaltered collection of her poetry became available for the first time in 1955 when The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Despite unfavorable reviews and skepticism of her literary prowess during the late 19th and early 20th century, critics now consider Dickinson to be a major American poet.
Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830 into a prominent, but not opulent, family. Emily was a well-behaved girl with a great affinity for music, particularly for the piano, which she called “the moosic”.
Emily attended primary school in Pleasant Street, opposite their future home. She then attended Amherst Academy, that had opened to female students just two years earlier. Here Emily studied English and classical literature, Latin, botany, geology, history, “mental philosophy” and arithmetic.
From a young age, Emily was troubled by the “deepening menace” of death, especially the deaths of those who were close to her.
Despite the fact that many of her friends and family experienced a religious conversion, Emily was either unwilling or unable to do likewise throughout her life. Unorthodox in her religion, having not made a formal declaration of faith, she however attended services regularly until probably around 1852.
In 1847, Dickinson began attending Mary Lyon’s Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, about ten miles from Amherst, but she made no lasting friendships there and left very soon. After settling once more in Amherst, Dickinson occupied her time with household activities.
When the 25 year-old Leonard Humphrey, who had been principal of the Academy for the last year of her stay, died, Emily was very shocked.
Dickinson assembled two collections during her lifetime: one was her assortment of poems, the other a sixty-six page book of pressed flowers that she collected herself. These flowers were classified using the Linnaean system with handwritten labels. In her garden at the Homestead, Dickinson cultivated exotic flowers, writing that she “could inhabit the Spice Isles merely by crossing the dining room to the conservatory, where the plants hang in baskets.
By the time she was eighteen, Dickinson’s family had made friendship with a young attorney by the name of Benjamin Franklin Newton, who would become the second in a series of older men that Emily referred to variously as her tutor, preceptor, or master.
Newton introduced her to the writings of William Wordsworth and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Dickinson knew already very well the Bible and William Shakespeare and was also familiar with some of the popular literature of the day such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Kavanagh, Charlotte Brontë ( Jane Eyre) .
Until she visited her father in Washington during his tenure as Representative from the Tenth Congressional District of Massachusetts, Emily had not away from Amherst. She spent three weeks in Washington with her father, accompanied by her sister and mother, and then two weeks in Philadelphia to visit family. While she was there she met Charles Wadsworth, a famous minister of the Arch Street Presbyterian Church, with whom she forged a strong friendship until his death in 1882.
Back home, Emily’s mother started suffering from unknown longstanding illnesses that made her live an invalid’s life from the mid 1850s until her death. As her mother continued to decline, Dickinson confined herself within the Homestead.
She began making clean copies of her work creating forty fascicles from 1858 through 1865 with nearly eight hundred poems, but no one was aware of these books’ existence until after her death.
In the late 1850s, the Dickinsons made friends with Samuel Bowles, the owner and editor-in-chief of the Springfield Republican. Emily sent him over three dozen letters and nearly fifty poems. After reading some of the poems, he offered to publish a few in the Springfield Republican.
These poems were published anonymously and edited for publication, giving them more conventional punctuation, as well as formal titles. The first poem written by Dickinson that appeared in the Republican, “Nobody knows this little rose”, was published on August 2, 1858, probably without Dickinson’s permission. The other poems that the Republican later published between 1861 and 1866. They were “I taste a liquor never brewed –”, entitled “The May-Wine”; “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers –”, entitled “The Sleeping”; “Blazing in the Gold and quenching in Purple”, entitled “Sunset”; and “A narrow Fellow in the Grass”, entitled “The Snake”.
The first half of the 1860s, after she had largely withdrawn from social life and rarely left the Homestead, was Dickinson’s most productive writing period. She probably wrote 86 poems in 1861, 366 in 1862, 141 in 1863, and 174 in 1864. In February and March 1864, several of her poems were altered and published in Drum Beat, a Brooklyn paper designed to raise money for medical care for Union soldiers in the war.
In April 1862, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a literary critic, radical abolitionist and ex-minister, wrote a lead piece for the Atlantic Monthly entitled “Letter to a Young Contributor”. Dickinson sent him a letter which was unsigned, but she had included her name on a card and enclosed it in an envelope along with four of her poems. This letter started a life-long correspondence between the two. His interest in her work certainly provided great moral support; many years later, Dickinson exaggeratedly told Higginson that he had saved her life in 1862.
In direct opposition to the immense productivity that she displayed in the early 1860s, Dickinson wrote many fewer poems in 1866, probably because she was too overcome to keep up her previous level of writing
She did not leave the Homestead unless it was absolutely necessary and as early as 1867, she began to talk to visitors from the other side of a door rather than speaking to them face to face; she was rarely seen and when she was, she was usually clothed in white.
Despite her physical seclusion, however, Dickinson was socially active and expressive through her notes and letters.
Higginson showed Dickinson’s poems to Helen Hunt Jackson, a famous publisher, who had coincidentally been at the Academy with Dickinson when they were girls. Jackson managed to convince Dickinson to publish her poem “Success is counted sweetest” anonymously in a volume called A Masque of Poets. The poem, however, altered to agree with contemporary taste, was the last poem published during Dickinson’s lifetime.
On June 16, 1874 while in Boston, Edward Dickinson suffered a stroke and died. When the simple funeral was held in the Homestead’s entrance hall, Emily stayed in her room with the door broken open. A year later, on June 15, 1875, Emily’s mother also suffered a stroke that produced a partial lateral paralysis and impaired memory.
Otis Phillips Lord, an elderly judge on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court from Salem, in 1872 or 1873, became an acquaintance of Dickinson’s, and her last Master.
After being critically ill for several years, Judge Lord died in March 1884. Dickinson referred to him as “our latest Lost”.
For some reason, although she continued to write as she aged, Dickinson stopped editing and organizing her poems. She also made her sister Vinnie promise to burn her papers, possibly including her manuscript books and verse, after her death.
1880s were a difficult time for the remaining Dickinsons. Dickinson’s mother died in 1882.
As death succeeded death, Dickinson found her world turned over. In 1884, she fainted and remained unconscious late into the night and weeks of ill health followed. On May 15, 1886, after several days of worsening symptoms, Emily Dickinson died at the age of 55.
Dickinson was buried dressed in white, in a white coffin with vanilla-scented heliotrope, a Lady’s Slipper orchid and a “knot of blue field violets” placed about it.
Dickinson’s poems fall into three distinct periods, the works in each period having certain general characters in common:
Poems written before 1861: conventional and sentimental in nature.
Poems written between 1861 and 1865: vigorous and emotional; she fully developed her themes of life and death.
Poems written after 1866.
The extensive use of dashes and unconventional capitalization in her manuscripts, and the idiosyncratic vocabulary and imagery, combine to create a unique lyric style.
She did not use the traditional iambic pentameter: her line lengths vary from four syllables or two feet to often eight syllables or four feet.
Her poems are often short to match the length of her lines. They typically begin with a declaration or definition in the first line usually followed by a metaphorical change of the original premise in the second line.
Dickinson’s poetry also frequently utilizes humor, puns, irony and satire.
With her frequent use of rhyme and free verse, many of Dickinson’s poems can easily be set to music.
Religion and faith, which often perplexed her in life, are common themes, but also themes of romantic love and desire are often found in her mature poems.
Much of her poetry, including the popular “Because I could not stop for Death –”, “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” and “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died”, deals with the themes of death and immortality.
Vinnie Dickinson kept her promise and burned most of her older sister’s correspondence after the poet’s death. When she found the forty manuscripts of Emily’s poetry, however, she recognized their worth and decided to publish them.
The first volume of Emily Dickinson’s Poems, edited jointly by Mabel Loomis Todd and T. W. Higginson, was published in November 1890.
They edited the poems extensively in order to regularize the punctuation and capitalization.
By the start of the 20th century, interest in her poetry became wider and some critics began to consider Dickinson as essentially modern. With the growing popularity of modernist poetry in the 1920s, Dickinson’s unconformity to 19th century ideas of poetic form was no longer surprising nor distasteful to new generations of readers. She was a private poet who wrote as indefatigably as some women cook or knit.
Feminism created greater cultural sympathy for her as a female poet. In 1983’s first collection of critical essays on Dickinson from a female perspective, she is seen as the greatest woman poet in the English language
Emily Dickinson is now considered a powerful and persistent figure in American culture. Although much of the early reception concentrated on Dickinson’s eccentric and secluded nature, she has become widely acknowledged as an innovative pre-modernist poet.